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GETTING THERE: Express lanes hit decade mark

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Ten years ago, the conversion from interstate HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes to electronically tolled lanes started in Virginia.

Last week, Transurban, the Australia-based company that operates the toll lanes, noted the 10-year anniversary of the Interstate 495 express lanes, which opened in November 2012 “as the first truly dynamically priced managed lanes system in the United States.”

The public-private project, between Transurban and the state, resulted in a 14-mile segment, which has since grown to 65 miles.

Transurban said in its news release that the express lanes on I–495, Interstate 95 and Interstate 395 “have saved nearly 10 million Greater Washington Area customers more than 33 million hours of time in one of the fastest growing regions in the U.S.”

The Fredericksburg-area express lanes have been around for a minute, too.

Work started in August 2012 on the conversion of a 29-mile stretch of I-95’s free HOV lanes to electronically tolled lanes, from State Route 610 in Stafford County north to the Beltway.

The toll lanes were initially dubbed HOT lanes, but that was changed to express lanes by the time they opened in December 2014.

The Stafford merge area was extended south in 2017. Another 10-mile lengthening of the lanes started in 2019 and continues today. The latest extension, scheduled to open in late 2023, will take the toll lanes to U.S. 17 in Stafford.

“More than 10 years ago, we started a journey alongside Virginia leaders to introduce a new way to travel, putting technology to work to unlock congestion and tangibly improve the quality of life of travelers in this region,” said Pierce Coffee, president of Transurban North America.

The express lanes collect tolls, but also still offer the HOV-free option for vehicles carrying at least three people. Motorcyclists and buses also use the lanes without charge.

The agreement included a portion of toll funds for the state, including $15 million annually to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission’s “Commuter Choice” program. That money has included funds for such improvements as commuter lots and expanded bus routes.

Kate Mattice, executive director for NVTCC, said the statement that the program has “demonstrated measurable reductions in the number of people driving alone and harmful vehicle emissions by providing incentives for people to find new ways to ride to where they want to go.”

Transurban said the express lanes and transit enhancements have “reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 67% relative to driving alone for comparable trips and supported 1.4 million more trips through the 395/95 corridor by transit and other alternatives to driving alone since the program launched in 2019.”

The express lanes also appear to be on tap for Maryland, which picked Transurban to develop a plan for the Interstate 270 corridor and a new American Legion Bridge.

Something perhaps flying under the radar is that the express lanes’ high-tech traffic management system doesn’t focus solely on collecting tolls.

The express lanes corridors are loaded with “2,000 on-road data points per mile … including the use of automated incident detection and ramp metering sensors that identify both live traffic issues and emerging traffic patterns,” according to Transurban.

The express lanes have also been used as a testing site for automated and connected vehicles, and Transurban said it has plans for a project “to test how automated buses can interact with infrastructure.”

The express lanes model, with and without tolls, looks like the tip of the iceberg for our connected and automated driving future.

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

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