The I-95 Express Lanes Leave Many in Community Worried

(Photo Credit: Flickr)
(Photo Credit: Flickr)

Every morning Stan Heath leaves his home in Woodbridge and drives to the Horner Road commuter parking lot near Interstate 95.

After parking his car, he walks over to a long line of people, waiting patiently for a stranger to take him to his job at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington.

It’s a good deal. Heath gets a free ride; the stranger gets to use the carpool lane. The practice began informally in the 1970s, but “slugging” has become a major form of transportation for residents of this Virginia suburb.

“Slugging is great, and it’s a quick way to get to D.C.,” Heath said.

But many Woodbridge residents are concerned that changes to the highway’s express lanes made as part of upgrades by the Virginia Department of Transportation could change slugging forever.

Scheduled to open in mid-December, the new express lanes are the result of a public-private partnership between the state and Australian toll-road operator Transurban. The 29-mile highway lanes stretch across Prince William County into Stafford and Fairfax counties.

Instead of a regular HOV lane, which anyone can use as long as they have two passengers, the lanes now require every driver to pay a toll.

David LeBlanc, who runs the website, dedicated to provide slugging information for commuters, said he too had concerns. LeBlanc is worried that the lanes might cause a longer commute for people who slug.

“If you lose the time saved [riding HOV-3] then some people aren’t going to opt to pick up slugs they’ll just pay the fee and ride in quiet solitude,” he said.

But Heath, a regular commuter, thinks the lanes could cause slugging to become more popular.

“I think some people will continue to slug like me,” Heath said. “But I also think that people who historically don’t pick up slugs will now pick up slugs to avoid paying the toll fees.”

Historically, as long as a driver had three people in the car they could use the HOV-3 lanes to bypass traffic. Slugging, completely commuter run, developed as a way for drivers to pick up “slug” in order to fulfill the three people in a car rule. Slugs typically ride silently with drivers to work.

But with the express lanes, as long as a driver has an EZ Pass, a device that allows for drivers to pay toll fees electronically, they can use the express lanes regardless of how many people are in the car.

Mahlon Anderson, managing director of Public and Government Relations efforts for AAA Mid-Atlantic, used to be concerned about whether the lanes would allow rich drivers to bypass traffic while those who couldn’t afford toll fees would be stuck.

“We had expressed concerns early on that creating express lanes that require people to pay to use them especially when they were on public roads could create a two-tier transportation system,” Anderson said.

“But we had changed our position to one of support because Virginia said to us in so many words we hear your concerns but if you have concerns about mobility and you want to do something to improve commutes in northern Virginia we don’t have the billions of dollars to do this. We have to do it with private money which means there’ll have to be toll lanes.”

If all goes according to plan, many motorists would use the express lanes and reduce traffic on the regular highway lanes.

“I can’t tell you how many motorists I’ve talked to who drive I-95 everyday and they have told me they cannot wait for the opening of this road. And they don’t care how much it costs.” Anderson said. “When you think of the quality of life [a reduced commute] that will add for so many people, who instead of hugging their steering wheel for two hours can hug their wives or children for one of those hours that would be amazing.”

But still some sluggers like, Tasha Henry, a program analyst for the federal government, disagree.

“I think it’s going to be harder to get a ride to work,” Henry said. “Especially because now you’re forcing people to pay when they didn’t have to pay before.”

Similar to Henry, Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, an organization dedicated to improving transportation in communities in the Washington D.C. region, has also been skeptical of the express lanes.

“We believe that this was not handled well by the state under two separate administrations, one Democratic and one Republican,” he said. “They never did a true alternative analysis for the [I-95] corridor as to what would be the best approach.”

Under federal regulations Virginia was not required to do a full environmental study or an alternatives analysis, which would have provided information on the impact of slugging, by the express lanes.

Local officials in Prince William County were also skeptical of the lanes. Initially the county Board of Supervisors were against the express lanes because they thought the lanes would ruin slugging.

But after VDOT communications explained that slugging and commuter buses would remain free, the supervisors changed their opposition to support.

Ricardo Canizales, division chief for the Department of Transportation in the county, worked on getting the message out to Woodbridge residents that slugging will remain free.

“The big push is to make sure the people who use the HOV-3 lanes get an E-Z Pass Flex that has the HOV switch,” Canizales said.

The E-Z Pass Flex allows people who slug to continue to ride the express lanes for free as long as it’s set to HOV mode. However for those who chose to ride without slugs the toll prices will vary each day based on the level of congestion.

Transurban estimates that during rush hour traffic toll fees will be between $6 and $8. During non rush hour times the fee could be as low as 20 cents per mile.

Many sluggers will continue to do so unless there aren’t any drivers willing to pick up slugs.

Ally Grammer, who commutes to her job in D.C., says, “But when I go out of town I’ll probably use the express lanes if I leave during rush hour. So yes, I’m excited to have that option. And it seems easy enough to use with a E-Z Pass.”