In a city filled with iconic landmarks, perhaps nothing better symbolizes how metropolitan Washington operates than the Capital Beltway: the physical embodiment of the gridlock that also grips Washington politics.
For decades, it has been the eight-lane asphalt moat that has divided the self-obsessed, hyperpartisan "Inside the Beltway" mentality from the salt-of-the-earth folks living outside the loop.
Now a $2 billion, 14-mile, decade-in-the-making expansion project will produce an additional divide, creating express lanes that allow drivers who are willing to pay a potentially steep toll to travel swiftly along D.C. metro's notoriously gridlocked roads.
The 495 Express Lanes are set to open Saturday, with four express lanes — two northbound and two southbound — supplementing the existing eight lanes on a portion of the Virginia side of the Beltway.
The lanes were built under a deal in which developers paid roughly 80 percent of the project's $2 billion cost, with public funds covering the rest. The companies will recoup the money through tolls. If the toll money exceeds projections, the state will also get a share.
Jenn Aument — a spokeswoman for Transurban, an Australian toll road developer that led the project — said the company estimates the average toll will be $3 to $6 during rush hour. Tolls will vary depending on traffic, rising as congestion worsens.
Carpools of three or more can use the lanes for free.
The concept faced resistance from the outset. AAA Mid-Atlantic initially derided the proposal for "Lexus Lanes" that would allow the rich to buy their way out of the congestion to which everyone else would be relegated.
As time went on, though, and it became clear that financing to expand the perpetually clogged Beltway would not be available through traditional means, skeptics such as AAA turned into supporters. The Federal Highway Administration has provided funding for more and more such projects across the country.
When the lanes are formally dedicated Tuesday, a AAA spokesman will ride in the first car to traverse the lanes.
"We first denounced them as Lexus lanes. Now we call them a godsend," said John Townsend, AAA Mid-Atlantic's manager of public and government affairs. "It's an acceptance of reality, and it says a lot about the sad state of transportation funding."
Townsend said he still has concerns that the lanes will be unaffordable for many. The lanes cut through some of the wealthiest areas in the country, and tolls will go as high as necessary to ensure the lanes move freely, so there may be a large number of drivers willing to pay any price to avoid traffic jams.
A similar project that launched last year on Interstate 85 near Atlanta proved controversial, and Georgia officials ended up lowering the maximum toll rates to attract drivers who at first snubbed the toll lanes. Buts usage of the lanes has risen, and the project differs in some significant ways from the Beltway project. Most importantly, the Beltway projects adds new lanes to the highway, while the Georgia project repurposed existing lanes.
John Lynch, the regional program manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said everyone will benefit from the added capacity. Projections show that without the new lanes, this section of the Beltway would be in gridlock 12 hours a day 20 years from now. With the Express Lanes — also known as High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes — severe congestion is projected to last five hours a day.
The lanes encourage carpooling, and mass-transit providers are adjusting bus routes to use them, he said.
And Aument rejects the notion that the Express Lanes can only be successful if regular lanes are so bad that people feel compelled to pay the tolls. She said there are reasons for drivers to use the Express Lanes other than avoiding traffic. For instance, the Express Lanes provide better access points to Tysons Corner — a burgeoning commercial hub that is home to corporations including Gannett, Hilton Worldwide and Freddie Mac, not to mention the state's largest shopping mall.
She also said drivers will be drawn to the lanes' reliability: Transurban will pay dedicated crews to quickly clear accidents.
And studies have shown that variable tolls that increase at peak times encourage some drivers to shift to off-peak hours, reducing congestion.
For now, Aument is urging drivers to prepare for new traffic patterns and other changes. Also, just as express train service might not stop at every station, the Express Lanes, in a concession to costs, do not have the full exit interchanges in all directions that are available in the regular lanes.
And the project has no toll booths, so drivers will need an E-Z Pass transponder. A special Flex transponder, which costs $12 a year, allows drivers to claim the free HOV ride when they flip it to carpool mode.
Jeremy Korr, a scholar who did his doctoral dissertation at The University of Maryland on the Beltway, said efforts to reduce gridlock are constrained by how the road was built in the 1960s. Planners underestimated from the very beginning how much traffic the highway would carry and how much land is needed.
When the loop was completed in 1964, news accounts hailed the beltway as a road that would unite the region and improve people's lives.
"That lasted about two months," said Korr, now a social sciences professor at Brandman University in Irvine, Calif.
The phrase "Inside the Beltway" — which Korr said was popularized as the title of a long-running Washington Post column — irritates those who live within its confines. Being on one side of the Beltway or the other is not of any special significance to residents, as the area inside the Beltway is home to both wealthy and destitute neighborhoods. And the policies that cause the nation to feel such frustration about the "inside the beltway" mindset are set by politicians who come from across the nation.
Korr said his dissertation research illustrated how intensely people feel about the road. He sent out hundreds of surveys of residents living near the Beltway, "and almost everyone had that kind of personal bond with the road. And it was totally negative. People love to hate the Beltway."