Express Lanes are a Traffic Solution?

A common refrain that we hear is that we need to build Express Lanes to “solve” congestion issues.  Sounds great!  While listening to planning presentations, traffic “studies,” contractor models, and official meetings, we hear about how much of an improvement Express Lanes can be, while their operator attempts to maximize revenue.

But Virginia now has almost a half decade of experience with Express Lanes.  The I-495 Beltway Express Lanes opened to much fanfare in 2012.  Very quickly, Express Lanes customers noticed that there is a big problem.  The Beltway commuters in the so-called “general purpose lanes,” having endured years of construction, now noticed there is a big problem.  Even VDOT noticed there is a big problem.


Express Lanes customers have the privilege of paying a toll for their traffic jam.  The drivers on the right are jammed with a new merge choke point for free.  (April 2017)

The congestion through Tysons Corner was even worse after the Express Lanes opened.  The main difference is drivers now had the opportunity to pay an expensive toll to sit in stop and go traffic.  Now drivers in the free lanes also contend with a large left hand merge onto the Interstate freeway.  Traffic experts realize that merging is a major source of backups and congestion.  Left hand merges are even worse, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) discourages their use on freeways.   VDOT decided their new solution would be allowing active shoulder driving on the left shoulder at the end of the Express Lanes.   Naturally, this was never tried before the Express Lanes were built.  So gantries were built, green arrows were installed, and a taupe color was painted on the left shoulder.  VDOT prefers red for shoulder decorating, but FWHA had already complained about the red color installed on I-66.

After this work was done, the congestion continued, except there was more of it.  The photo above shows I-495 Northbound this week on an average afternoon.  The weather was clear and sunny and there were no traffic incidents or accidents ahead.  We see a typical congestion mess with the Express Lanes.  The same photo can be taken nearly every day.  The only difference is the drivers on the left are paying a toll to sit in their traffic, while the drivers on the right endure the traffic and merging for free.  For I-66, the primary difference will be that the gasoline tanker on the right side will be allowed in the “Express Lanes.”

The new congestion isn’t limited to the freeways.  The “traffic studies” never studied the Express Lanes’ impacts on traffic flow in other roads.  Most of the Beltway Express Lanes access points resulted in new traffic signals, snarling local traffic even more.  At Route 7/Leesburg Pike, a free flowing junction was replaced with a traffic light with long waits in all directions.   Even where Express Lanes allowed faster Beltway traffic flow, it did so at the expense of folks on local roads now forced to wait for those new lights.  Naturally, the VDOT and TransUrban studies never studied this impact.

For I-66, the planned Express Lanes will terminate at the Capital Beltway.  The merge delays and congestion seen above on I-495 will now be duplicated on I-66, enhanced by the added complexity of an entangled concrete jungle.  Not to worry though, the traffic models and studies have traffic “solved” once again!


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5 Responses to Express Lanes are a Traffic Solution?

  1. Mark says:

    Yes. It moves more people, provides reliable trips and offers new travel options. It does NOT relieve congestion. When a variable toll element is added, all the traffic charts related to traffic congestion are a joke. “Free” parking at Tysons is the main problem. Lack of transportation options is the main problem regarding the American Legion Bridge.


    • Bryan says:

      The most reliable element of the Express Lanes is knowing traffic is stopped in them nearly every weekday afternoon (see photo). The existing “free” lanes have been hard hit by the merge that causes heavy congestion for both classes of Beltway users.

      To be fair, nearly every Interstate highway bridge has the same transportation option: Moving vehicles on the roadway. There are little to no scheduled local bus routes that use the I-495 American Legion bridge. While most businesses in Tysons Corner do have free parking for employees and visitors, this is typical of most suburbs.


      • Mark says:

        The American Legion bridge problem is more of an issue of Virginia trying to make transportation improvements and Maryland doing nothing. Northern Virginia has had significantly more job growth than Maryland since 2008 when the express lane construction started and that is why congestion is much worse now. You could close the express lanes and traffic would still be horrible. Maryland knew this was coming and did nothing about it and now everyone suffers. There is no incentive provide bus service or carpool since traffic so bad.

        Tysons is not a suburb anymore….Everyone needs to get on board… Reston is even starting to try charge for parking.

        Unfortunately, the AML merge is why VDOT is so adamant about providing all possible connections at the I-66/I-495 interchange.


      • Bryan says:

        We haven’t seen data that shows Virginia having significantly more job growth than Maryland, although both (in the national capital region) are much better off than much of the United States due to the federal government pumping jobs into the local economy and a healthy technology sector. But all is not rosy. As of a year ago, the Northern Virginia office vacancy rate was just over 21% and increasing. Roslyn alone is significantly worse, with a vacancy rate of over 30%. The recession hit the area hard. Tysons Corner is a huge employment area, but still a relatively small population area. Tysons Corner had a population of under 20,000 at the last census, and this will rise significantly, but like the rest of Fairfax County it is very much suburban. It is a destination for office space and a bedroom area to serve the capital region, but hardly a population center in its own right.

        The merge at the northern terminus of Beltway Express Lanes is actually a few miles south of the Maryland border. When traffic started using the express lanes, a new bottleneck was created overnight. We haven’t heard that this merge is the reason for anything at I-66, in fact VDOT has stated they believe the Beltway Express Lanes merge work great and there are no problems there. We would love to hear your source of this statement.


  2. Sue says:

    Totally agree with all observations detailed (both for 495 towards Maryland and Rte 7). I used to commute from Vienna to the NIH for years…the traffic always flowed in that direction at rush hour prior to the hot lanes being installed…not any more. When will the Governor’s Office and VDOT admit that all these projects are a mistake and don’t work? I am now an HOV I-66 commuter…who lives in Vienna. Once outside the beltway construction starts, I am expecting the commute to become a complete disaster…not to mention the impact on my neighborhood. We already have commuter traffic speeding by on my street (avoiding HOV restrictions)…can’t wait to see how much that increases due to construction and high tolls both inside and outside the beltway. Speaking of tolls…is anyone paying attention to this? Do people even see the outrageous tolling going on? Who can afford these tolls? Seriously? I have heard it could cost over $20 a day to just commute from Vienna to Ballston. Is there an elected official even paying attention to this situation? Do the folks out in western Fairfax County and beyond even realize how high the tolls will be for them to commute in using a hot lane? Do they really think the remaining free lanes will not be congested? Who is looking out for those of us living in Vienna, Dunn Loring, and Falls Church? When will someone hold the Governor and VDOT responsible for these terrible projects. I just wish Richmond would stay out of our lives and provide real solutions. Real simple…stop the hybrid cars from being single drivers, encourage more carpools, add more commuter buses out of Fairfax and Gainesville, spend the money on building a new metro tunnel into DC and have metro go farther west along Rte 66. At least give all that a chance before you tear up our neighborhoods and ruin our way of life. My neighbors and I chose to live close in for an easier commute. We have smaller more costly homes, pay higher taxes…but we have to endure all the negative impacts…how is this even fair?


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