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Clarify confusing signs for new I-66 toll lanes, Fairfax County tells VDOT

A sign shows the toll for the I-66 West Express Lanes between routes 123 and 50 (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The toll lanes on I-66 outside the Capital Beltway have been open for over three months now, but some drivers are still getting tripped up by the accompanying signage.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors directed staff on Tuesday (March 7) to prepare a letter asking the Virginia Department of Transportation to clarify the information on its signs about toll prices and exit locations.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, who requested the move, said his office has continued to receive complaints from confused constituents.

“The signage used on these newly opened Express Lanes is not as clear as the signs on I-495 and I-95 Express Lanes,” Herrity said. “The signage does not provide total cost information for the entire length, and it does not give clear information to drivers on locations of exit ramps to general purpose lanes, which is important for drivers deciding whether to pay additional tolls.”

Covering 22.5 miles from the Beltway (I-495) in Dunn Loring to Route 29 in Gainesville, the westward extension of the I-66 Express Lanes became fully operational on Nov. 22, though portions of the overall $3.7 billion project are still under construction.

The signage was developed in accordance with federal guidelines and approved by the Federal Highway Administration, but both VDOT and I-66 Express Mobility Partners (I-66 EMP), the private company that operates the toll lanes, acknowledged that this is “a learning period” as drivers adjust to new signs and traffic patterns.

“We are looking at areas in the corridor where we might enhance or clarify the signage in an effort to help drivers,” VDOT Northern Virginia’s megaprojects section said in a statement.

Because of their length, the new lanes are split up into three eastbound segments and four westbound segments, charging drivers for each segment they take. Signs for the lanes currently show only toll prices for specific sections, rather than the whole corridor.

Nancy Smith, the corporate affairs director for I-66 EMP, says the operator is “aware” that this approach “may present particular confusion” at spots like the I-495 interchange that are complicated to navigate, but it’s ultimately more effective.

“This system provides our drivers with the most accurate rates as well as greater flexibility to determine when to get on and off the lanes,” Smith said. “An end-to-end rate wouldn’t accurately reflect conditions in the furthest segment by the time a driver gets there. Again, it will take time for all drivers to completely familiarize themselves with our segmental tolling system.”

According to I-66 EMP, the average weekly toll lanes usage increased from about 3% to 5% of I-66 users over the past month, suggesting drivers becoming more accustomed to the lanes.

“That’s a very encouraging growth trend,” Smith said.

I-66 EMP has an online trip planning tool that provides toll estimates. Its customer service center at 1-833-643-2867 will also answer questions, Smith said.

Despite his concerns about the signage, Herrity called the I-66 Express Lanes project an “impressive feat” that provides new transportation choices and “a quicker commute due to the additional capacity from the toll lanes.”

“I thought a letter from the board might help VDOT encourage the contractor to get that signage done,” Herrity said.

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