The operators of the 495 Express Lanes have set Saturday, Nov. 17 — five days before Thanksgiving — as opening day. The two new lanes in each direction spanning 14 miles between the Springfield interchange and the Dulles Toll Road will be E-ZPass only.
Everybody needs an E-ZPass to use the express lanes. Carpools need the E-ZFlex for the toll-free trip. So far the Virginia Department of Transportation says signups for E-Z Pass are going well in the local area.
Pierce Coffee is the marketing director for Transurban Group, the private sector partner in the $2 billion project.
"We definitely want to focus on opening the road when there aren't a lot of travelers," says Coffee. "And certainly over the weekend people will start to see that it is opening and know it will be a commuting option that first Monday morning, Nov. 19."
Critics of the project are not planning a celebration.
"We've been concerned about the project since the beginning," says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which generally supports mass transit projects instead of highway construction. He says the Express Lanes may succeed at helping motorists get a faster ride for a price, but the big picture does not look as good.
"For all those cars that might move into the HOT lanes and pay for the toll, you will likely get back filling of other commuters especially during rush hour into the general purpose lanes in case the flow of those does improve. The phenomena of induced traffic are serious," he says. "The "if you build it they will come phenomenon" will probably exist in this corridor."
New highways don't solve congestion, he says. They just push the bottlenecks down the road. Schwartz is also unhappy with the deal the state of Virginia signed with Transurban, which gets the toll revenues for the next 75 years.
"Throughout those 75 years, or at least after the debt was paid off, we could use it for other transportation investments to help northern Virginians," says Schwartz. "But now we have signed away those revenues to the private entity."
Transurban is looking for a profit many times its investment of $1.5 billion.