New Beltway Express Lanes--Celebrated by DOT Secretary--Open With Multiple Crashes

November 19, 2012 - 8:26 AM

495 express lanes

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez joined Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell at a ribbon cutting for the I-495 toll lanes on the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. (Photo from 495expresslanes.com)

(CNSNews.com) - Brand-new express lanes on the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia -- praised by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as a "model for American infrastructure" -- opened with a bang on Saturday: multiple collisions involving multiple vehicles.

On Monday, the first rush-hour test of I-495's high occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes, police were investigating a four-car collision at the start of the morning rush. "The cause of the crash has not been determined but Virginia State Police are urging drivers to be careful and not back up if they mistakenly enter the Express Lanes," the Washington Post reported.

News-radio WTOP reported that cars were crashing within hours of the HOT lanes opening on Saturday morning: As of Sunday evening, police had responded to four accidents, all at the northbound entrance of the 14-mile toll road that has two lanes running in each direction.

"Police say every accident was caused when a driver suddenly swerved or made a sudden lane change to avoid the toll lanes," WTOP reported. "Virginia State Police on Sunday urged drivers to make themselves familiar with the changes."

"Imagine what this will be like on with people traveling through the area for Thanksgiving," WTOP traffic reporter Jack Taylor said.

Last Thursday, DOT Secretary LaHood celebrated the opening of the 495 express lanes as the first major improvements to the Capital Beltway in a generation:

"These Express Lanes offer drivers the option of paying a toll or carpooling to ride in faster-moving traffic. The toll will fluctuate depending upon how many vehicles are already using the lanes. This will reduce congestion for all Beltway travelers--even those who remain on the untolled main roadway. And that means visitors, commuters, and commerce can move more efficiently around the D.C. metro area for decades to come," LaHood noted in his "fastlane blog.

LaHood also hailed the express lanes as "a model of innovative financing."

"DOT's Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program provided $588 million for the new lanes. In addition, the project received $300 million in federal aid and $600 million in private activity bond authority. The Virginia DOT and Capital Beltway Express, LLC, are funding the remainder of the project through a public-private partnership."

LaHood called it "a great example of what TIFIA is designed to do, which is to help projects use federal dollars to secure other funding in the private market." He said TIFIA has been a popular and successful program -- "and DOT is happy to play a role in helping good projects move forward."

HOT lanes are about "making connections better," LaHood blogged. "It's all part of President Obama's vision of an America Built to Last, strengthening our infrastructure while creating jobs and growing the economy."

Drivers who don't have an E-ZPass toll transponder must pay a $12.50 penalty, unless they log onto 495expresslanes.com and click on "missed a toll?" In that case, WTOP reported, drivers will be charged a $1.50 administrative fee plus the tolls due.

The express lanes are the result of a four-year construction project, which required 350 overnight closures of I-495 and more than 8.5 million work hours as of September 2012. The project required construction of 58 new bridges and overpasses, and 12 interchanges were rebuilt or upgraded.

For regular Beltway commuters, the construction created traffic backups and confusion as lanes shifted to accomodate the work.