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How HOT lanes will work

I know where the toll rates will be set for the Beltway High Occupancy Toll lanes. It will be done in a building near the junction of the Capital Beltway and I-395. When the lanes open at the end of 2012, people in the HOT Operations Center, far out of sight of the lanes themselves, will monitor more than 80 sensors and cameras recording traffic flow.

The technology, including the 45 miles of cable along the Beltway and the traffic sensors located about every third-of-a-mile along the 14 miles of HOT lanes, that is hooked into the operations center can adjust the toll rate as often as every five minutes, although that's considered unlikely.

The rate a driver pays will be fixed when the vehicle passes the first tolling point. That rate will be based on the level of congestion. The driver will know what the rate is at the point where the driver is deciding whether to use the HOT lanes. Then it's a question of how far the driver travels in the lanes. Another toll sensor will record where the driver exits, and the driver will be billed for the trip.

To use the lanes, drivers must have a transponder. An E-ZPass will work, but carpoolers, or people thinking about carpooling, will need to use a special version being developed. It will have a switch that lets the driver turn off the transponder.

Virginia State Police will be watching the toll points, under a contract with Transurban, the company operating the lanes. The troopers will have devices that can communicate with the toll sensors. They'll know whether a vehicle paid the toll and can eyeball whether there are enough riders in the car.

Travelers often ask if this is going to work.

What gives me confidence in this system is that Transurban's finances depend on it working. There's a lot of money at stake in making sure the sensors record the proper tolls while giving the appropriate free passes. And there's also a lot of money at stake in making sure the lanes flow freely all the time. What Transurban is selling is a faster, safer ride than you might be able to get in the four regular lanes.

That's the other main role of the operations center. The people there will be working with the troopers and the other safety personnel on the lanes to make sure that accidents and disabled vehicles are dealt with quickly, so traffic keeps moving.

The Wednesday morning groundbreaking for the operations center drew many officials interested in keeping their constituents moving. They included Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton and Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova. Thelma Drake, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, was also there, because a key point of the project is to support rapid bus transit along the Beltway.

By Robert Thomson  |  May 26, 2010; 1:55 PM ET
Categories:  Driving , highways  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, HOT lanes  
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So let me get this straight....if I use my New York E-ZPass, I can use it but i'm going to get charged the toll regardless of how many occupants in my vehicle?

What a sneaky way of getting money from all those people from the northeast with who are on vacation, likely to have E-ZPass, and likely to have 3 people in the car...but its one I don't disagree with. VDOT has to pay the toll to transurban for HOV's if HOV's are too numerous. So if someone from New York gets charged a toll which would be free if they had a Virginia transponder, its a gain for Virginians who would otherwise have to subsidize that New Yorker's toll through their taxes.

Looks like I'll have to open a second E-ZPass account. I need to keep my New York E-ZPass account, because when I drive up that way I typically drive the bridges and tunnels several times, and the steep discount on the toll is only given to New York E-ZPass tagholders. But NY isn't going to give the "switchable" HOV E-ZPasses out...Virginia will.

I have no doubt that the system will work. As the great Doctor says, Transurban's finances depend on having a sound revenue collection system. What I forsee is massive confusion amongst drivers as to how much they will pay. It will be impossible to list the tolls on the signs to every intermediate exit. At Springfield, you'll likely see tolls to I-66, Tysons Corner, and the end of the lanes (American Legion Bridge), but likely no other intermediate points. So if you want to get off at Braddock Road, you'll have to learn to do quick math in your head.

So its not the toll collection system that's going to be confusing, its the "feeding information to the driver for decisionmaking" that will be confusing.

Posted by: thetan | May 26, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Will the cost of the HOT lanes be displayed on signboards as a per mile rate, or will they show how much it will cost to get off at each of the exits along the way?

Also, will drivers be given refunds if there is congestion in the HOT lanes that cause any delay? I forsee a serious problem where the lanes end in McClean.

Finally, are the HOT lane operators limited in any way as to what price they can charge for the lanes? If the 4 normal beltway lanes are shut down for an accident, is there anything preventing these guys from jacking up rates to $100 or more per mile to circumvent the stopped traffic?

Posted by: Russtinator | May 26, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Regarding toll rates and signs, the project's site says that "[m]otorists will see at least two electronic message signs well before they enter the HOT lanes so they will have plenty of time to choose whether to use HOT lanes or travel on the regular lanes for free." What it doesn't say is what form that info will take. I assume it will say something like "$x.yz per mile," leaving it on the driver to know how far he has to go. It would make eminent sense to couple the toll rate sign with a sign listing "Exits from HOT lanes" and then giving the distance to each (similar to the sign now present just after you enter the I-95 express lanes at their southern end). Yeah, the driver would have to do the math. But it's easier than posting a sign listing rates to all the exits, and it also means fewer electronics in the sign to break!

Regarding exits, there will be fewer HOT exits than there are local exits (that is, it won't be like the quad-carriageway part of the New Jersey Turnpike where you can access an exit from either carriageway). If you enter at the southern end of the HOT lanes, for example, you will not be able to exit until you reach the new ramp to be built at US-29 near Merrifield (that's about 5.5 miles).

There will be northbound exits, and southbound entrances, at US-29 (new), I-66, VA-7, the Westpark Connector (new), Jones Branch Drive (new), and the Dulles Access and Toll Roads. There will be southbound exits, and northbound entrances, at Jones Branch Drive (new), the Westpark Connector (new), I-66, Gallows Road, and Braddock Road. The I-66 interchange with the HOT lanes will be sort of a "three-quarters" interchange like the current setup in that there won't be connections between I-66 inside the Beltway and the Beltway north of I-66.

There will be no cap on toll rates, "as tolls must be able to increase to the level necessary to manage real-time traffic demand and keep the lanes congestion free."

The project FAQ may be found here:

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 26, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Are there going to be changeable message boards anywhere near the entrances to the HOT lanes that let drivers know the toll? The two well-known Southern California roads with high-frequency toll changes, SR-91 and I-15, have these. SR-91 has a fixed toll schedule, though, while I-15 is dynamically priced. As a result, the I-15 HOT lanes have the curious property that as the toll goes up, usage increases, because people see the high toll as a signal of congestion in the free lanes and

Posted by: rusholmeruffian | May 26, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Yes, you should be able to use the E-ZPass you have now. If you get two other people to ride with you, then you'd take the E-ZPass off the windshield and put it in that silvery bag they give you so the transponder won't communicate with the toll sensor. But that's a pain in the neck. That's why Transurban plans to offer this new design of an E-ZPass transponder that has an on-off switch that carpoolers can use.

I think the managers have not yet figured out exactly how they want to display the toll rate information as you approach the lanes. Above all, they want it to be easy to understand. They want you to be able to absorb the financial implications for your trip and let you process the information in time to make a safe decision about what lane to be in.

You could show a per mile rate, or you could show the rate to a certain destination along the Beltway.

Jennifer Aument, the Transurban spokeswoman, was telling me today that Transurban figures the average driver would wind up paying $5 or $6 for a trip. Most people won't be using the HOT lanes every day and most people won't use them for their entire 14-mile length.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | May 26, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

I just found a picture of the signage used for the HOT lanes on I-95 in Miami. See link below. Note that there for a carpool to ride free the car has to be registered with the people who run the HOT lanes, which is quite different from the plans in Virginia. This sign seems like a reasonably good example, but their current HOT lanes cover a shorter distance and have fewer exits than what's being constructed on the Beltway.

(The really stupid thing is that the numbnuts who run Florida's toll roads have not made their transponders compatible with E-ZPass. Stupid. As my father once said, "I want a North America Pass that works on all toll roads in the US, Canada, and Mexico.")

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 26, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Something I just thought of.....out of curiosity, I wonder how all of you refer to the lanes in question. That is, the radio announcers like to pronounce "HOT" as the word "hot." I've always said it as three letters, "H-O-T," because I view it as being the same principle as "HOV." Nobody says "huv lanes."

Just curious whether I am the only person who says it that way. (Never had anyone not know what I meant by H-O-T lanes, either.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 26, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

It seems that the sensors could also calculate whether a car was exceeding the speed limit. Kinda scary.

Posted by: rdpinva | May 26, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

The sign like the one 1995hoo showed from Florida are the only kind otherwords, they can show the toll to a specific exit point.

I don't know of any provision in the MUTCD for a sign that lists a per-mile rate with no tolls to a specific exit along the way.

Doctor G, I thought everyone had to have an active E-ZPass transponder to use the HOT lanes. In regular mode, it would charge a toll. In HOV mode, it would track your entry and exit but not charge a toll. In otherwords, HOV mode is not the same as a de-activated transponder or one placed in the silver bag.

My understanding was that if they simply allowed people without transponders in the HOT lanes then people without 3 riders could "ditch" their tag at the entrance and exit once they see there are no cops waiting.

Posted by: thetan | May 26, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

"rdpinva," systems like E-ZPass are already, in theory, capable of determining your speed, at least on roads where you go through a toll gantry both upon entering and exiting (e.g., "ticket-system" roads like the New Jersey Turnpike or the New York Thruway) or where you pass through multiple tollbooths at some point (e.g., the Garden State Parkway for many drivers, or the Dulles Toll Road). Since it's known how far apart the two tollbooths are, and it's known what the speed limit is, it's easy to determine whether you exceeded the speed limit. (The HOT lanes will be closer in principle to the "ticket system," though without the actual tickets, than to the other sort of road.) But currently NO jurisdiction in the United States uses electronic tolling data in this matter.

The Brits do have an insidious form of speed camera known as "average speed check." It's frequently used in work zones. What happens is that you pass a camera at Point A and it takes a picture of your number plate. You pass another camera at Point B and it takes another picture. Your average speed is then calculated based on the time it took you to drive that distance and, if you exceeded the speed limit, you receive a ticket via post. It's a horrible system from a driver's standpoint, especially when they impose a glacially slow 50-mph speed limit on the M4 and then use "average speed check" to enforce it. I'm really quite surprised that the District of Columbia and Maryland haven't started using this sort of system.

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 26, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

As for SunPass and E-ZPass compatibility...they aren't compatible, period. E-ZPass transponders are made by Mark IV (as are some other systems, like South Carolina's Palmetto Pass). Just about every other system in the nation uses TransCore technology (Texas and Florida being the big states using those systems). The two are totally different systems using different technology.

FHWA had a symbol in the proposed 2009 MUTCD for a "nationally interoperable" toll pass. If you had a pass that was interoperable you could use it on any toll road in the nation with the symbol. The symbol was rejected in the final 2009 MUTCD because it wasn't tested to see if drivers would understand what it meant, and FHWA acknowledged that a nationally interoperable system was a long way off into the future.

E-ZPass is as close as we have to an interoperable works in 14 states, and is the only toll pass accepted in multiple states. But unfortunately, E-ZPass uses the worst technology....they require a battery. So the trend in every state that does not accept E-ZPass is to go to tags that are less like E-ZPass. In Texas and Florida, they use "sticker tags" now, which is the size of a credit card and is permanently affixed to the windshield. The tag uses the windshield glass as an antenna, so if you remove the tag from the windshield, it is permanently damaged and cannot be used. The sticker tags are much cheaper and more reliable than the E-ZPass transponders.

The problem with interoperability is that it doesn't make sense from a fiscal standpoint. If you are a Florida snowbird from New York, get two tags. You have from Baltimore to practically Orlando to swap out your tags, and you will surely take a break at some point.

But most other drivers only very occasionally drive far away from home, and when they do, they aren't using a toll facility multiple times. And toll roads outside the northeast are mostly on commuter roads, not major interstates, so the commuters that make up almost an entirety of the customer base use the road have the local toll tag.

Also, transponderless electronic toll collection is the next big thing. The ICC is a perfect example. Have an E-ZPass? Great! From Florida and don't have one? No problem. We'll mail you a bill with a minor processing fee. That negates the need for interoperable tags.

I think its a noble goal, but not happening anytime soon.
and in transportation engineering circles, it is always a "Hot Lane", never an "H-O-T Lane". Yeah, I know we should probably be calling the other kind of lanes "Hove" lanes based on that principle, but I digress. Perhaps because hot is actually a word but hove is not.

Posted by: thetan | May 26, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the info on the transponders. I hate the idea of having one that cannot be swapped between my cars, given that it's 100% certain that if I'm driving one of them at any given moment the other one is either parked at home or is at the mechanic and so I'll never need transponders in both at once.

I understand the 407 Express Toll Route in Toronto uses "transponderless" tolling via cameras, although they also offer transponders to regular users. It seems like that's a sensible way to go except that it doesn't address what happens with people who have license plate covers. I guess those will be the next thing they ban.

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 26, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Actually, another thought. What they could do as a compromise for interoperable toll tags is allow one tag to be registered with multiple toll agencies. This is how the Atlantic Provinces work their system. Cobequid Pass (Cobequid Pass tolls on NS 104), Strait Pass (Confederation Bridge), Harbor Pass (St. John Harbor Bridge), and Mac Pass (MacDonald and McKay bridges in Halifax) all use the same type transponder. You open an account with an agency and get a transponder. When you open another account with another agency, you simply say "I already have a transponder, here's the number". You have to open the account with each agency whose facilities you use, but you only need one transponder.

Massachusetts actually used to let E-ZPass customers register their E-ZPass tag numbers with Fast Lane before the two became compatible. You paid your Mass Pike toll with an E-ZPass tag linked to a Fast Lane account. When they became compatible, those Fast Lane accounts were closed and people paid Mass Pike tolls with their E-ZPass accounts.

Posted by: thetan | May 26, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

I'm now confused about HOV use of the Hot lanes. Dr. G states that you can just put your transponder into a bag, but in the story he wrote and the FAQ on the website suggests that enforcement officers will be able to detect HOV users through the use of their transponder.

If HOV users need to have a transponder, will it be possible to trade in an existing EZPass, for which the administrative/rental fee was already paid, for the new style transponder that will allow for HOV use on the HOT lanes? I'm not going to pay for a replacement transponder for the 1-3 times a year that I will travel along this stretch with 3+ occupants in my vehicle.

I still don't see any information as to how to get a refund of the toll if the lanes do not move at the expected pace.

Posted by: Russtinator | May 26, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

BTW, talking about signage, if there's one thing you can count on in Virginia it's inconsistent signage. The signage for the HOV facilities around the Commonwealth has to be some of the LEAST consistent stuff I've seen anywhere. Sure, to the extent the MUTCD guidance has changed I understand and applaud not replacing older signs that aren't yet worn out, but man, Virginia's signs are some of the LEAST HELPFUL I've seen anywhere.

Long way of saying, if they can botch the signage for the HOT lanes they probably will, although if the Fluor-Transurban consortium are in charge of the signs maybe they'll do a better job of it (for, as Dr. Gridlock rightly notes, they have a vested interest in getting it right).

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 26, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

"Thanks for the info on the transponders. I hate the idea of having one that cannot be swapped between my cars, given that it's 100% certain that if I'm driving one of them at any given moment the other one is either parked at home or is at the mechanic and so I'll never need transponders in both at once."


Ah, but sticker tags cost about fifth of what a transponder costs. No reason you shouldn't have one for each car, says TxDOT.

Posted by: thetan | May 26, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

"I still don't see any information as to how to get a refund of the toll if the lanes do not move at the expected pace."

Simple answer: You don't get a refund.

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 26, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Following on thetan's comments, I just pulled up the MUTCD to have a look at what the standards are. (URL is at the end of this comment.) I find it interesting that a lot of the standards set forth in there would solve a lot of the deficiencies I've previously mentioned with respect to Virginia's signage, including the preference for an advance sign listing the exits from the HOV or HOT facility.

The thing that I still find a little funny is the insistence on white-on-green signage, with an "EXPRESS LANES" or other similar panel at the top, because standard guide signs in the US are that color. I rather like the system used in Toronto on the quad-carriageway 401 where the express lanes use the standard white-on-green and the "collector" lanes (outer carriageways) use white-on-blue signs, the idea being to help the motorist tell instantly that he's in a different carriageway. See example:

Virginia used to do this in the express lanes on Shirley Highway in that those lanes' signs were white-on-black (or some other very dark color). I think it makes good sense to have the signs be instantly distinguishable in this manner, although I also think that if any driver is stupid enough to think a guide sign placed over a physically-separated carriageway applies to him he's too stupid to be allowed to have a driver's license!

Either way, obviously the FHWA doesn't allow the different-colored signs, but the current sign standards are a heck of a lot better than what Virginia has posted for many years. (Seems to me road signs should, first and foremost, help people who do not know the road very well, yet Virginia's signs often assume that the reader is familiar with the road....those are the people who least need signs!)

The MUTCD section on signage may be found here:

They call HOT lanes "Priced Managed Lanes," incidentally, in part because not all "express toll lanes" allow carpools to ride free. The ones Maryland is building north of Baltimore will not allow that, for example.

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 26, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Yep, thanks for the link, 1995hoo. I helped write that chapter :)

Problem is, and FHWA admits this is a problem...there are so many different operation schemes for managed lanes, its tough to cover all of them in one manual. Some of the proposed operation and management schemes are very confusing. But as the old adage goes, "If you can't sign it, don't design it."

Posted by: thetan | May 26, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

"I helped write that chapter :)"

You got any job openings for someone with no engineering background but who simply finds all sorts of road and traffic discussions interesting? I find this stuff a lot more interesting that what I currently do for a living.

Incidentally, while I rolled my eyes a bit at the need for the "EXPRESS LANES" panel, I think having it as a line-delineated panel on the same sign makes a lot more sense than having a completely separate sign in the nature of an exit tab, only bigger, which is what Virginia currently has on several of the signs over the Shirley Highway express lanes. Bound to be cheaper, and it eliminates the problem of the separate sign falling off or otherwise disappearing. (IIRC this was also one reason why the yellow "METRIC" plaque was done away with for speed limit signs in favor of a sign with the speed limit circumscribed.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 26, 2010 6:15 PM | Report abuse

This whole boondoggle is fraught with peril. Just another reason to stay out of the Commonwealth.

--Driving for free in the Free State.

Posted by: Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me | May 26, 2010 9:22 PM | Report abuse

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me: I'm glad to hear that the Maryland Intercounty Connector will be free of charge. I wasn't aware of this fact until your post helpfully enlightened me...

Posted by: stuckman | May 26, 2010 10:11 PM | Report abuse

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