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Beltway project will be model for world

Thursday - 6/21/2012, 8:00am  ET

Adam Tuss, wtop.com

MERRIFIELD, Va. - Virginia's transportation chief says the fast-moving Beltway Express Lanes project will be a model not just for the country -- but the rest of the world as well.

"We think it is going to be a great success," says Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton.

As the summer heat kicks into high gear, road crews are also working feverishly on the 14-mile-long project. The project, which is adding two High Occupancy Toll lanes in each direction between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road on the Capital Beltway, is expected to open on time and on budget in December.

"It is amazing to me that a project so complex -- that was done on a road that gets well over 200,000 vehicles a day -- that they have been able to manage it and move it forward as quickly as they have," says Connaughton.

The concept behind the Express Lanes is for drivers to pay a toll for a fast, predictable trip. If there are three or more people carpooling, drivers will be able to use the lanes for free.

Exact toll rates will depend on how much traffic is in the lanes. The more traffic there is, the higher the tolls will go. The idea is that tolls will be set at a level that keeps traffic flowing at a minimum speed of 45 mph. The road will use an all-electronic tolling system, with no toll booths. The average cost of a trip on the Express Lanes is expected to be around $5 or $6 for a 3 1/2-mile trip.

One question WTOP gets asked frequently is how the people in charge of the lanes will know that drivers have the required number of people -- three or more - - to use the lanes for free, and that they are not High Occupancy Vehicle cheaters.

In addition to needing an E-ZPass that can switch to carpool mode, there will be a police force solely dedicated to visually inspecting cars to make sure vehicles have the required number of people. Overhead sensors will alert police positioned ahead that carpool cars are approaching.

Along with toll payers and carpoolers, commuter buses also are expected to take full advantage of the speedy trip that the Express Lanes promise.

The current cost estimate of the project is $1.9 billion. The project is being funded with both public and private money. Australian-based Transurban-Fluor is the private party investing in the project.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)