Drivers need to get ready now if they want to ride the Beltway Express lanes on opening day.
The lanes, set to open Nov. 17, will offer a less congested commute but will require an E-ZPass for drivers to pay the toll, or a new device -- an E-ZPass Flex -- to ride for free if they're carpooling.
Officials are urging drivers to buy the gadgets online at ezpassva.com, or in person at AAA Mid-Atlantic stores or certain Wegmans and Giant Food stores in Northern Virginia. The passes will allow drivers to bypass the worst of the nearly constant congestion on the four new lanes stretching from the Springfield interchange to just north of the Dulles Toll Road.
"I think if you're coming on the Beltway and you have done so for a long time, this is going to be a game-changer," said express lanes spokeswoman Pierce Coffee. "This is the biggest change to traffic patterns since [Interstate] 66 was opened 30 years ago."
If drivers don't have an E-ZPass and use the express lanes, they have five days to go online to 495expresslanes.com and pay the toll, plus an extra $1.50 fee. If they don't, they'll get a notice in the mail that will include a $12.50 fee in addition to the toll.
If E-ZPass sales are any indication, the express lanes will be popular, said AAA Mid-Atlantic's John Townsend.
"The transponders are just leaping off the shelves at our retail centers in Northern Virginia," he said. "It's going to be a road of much demand."
The downside of popularity on the express lanes is that the busier the lanes are, the higher the toll motorists would have to pay. The higher tolls are intended to help curb congestion on the new lanes.
Officials expect a few thousand commuters to use the new lanes at first.
"Like with anything new, you'll also see a ramp-up period," Coffee said. "I don't expect we'll see the lanes stacked full."
The new lanes will also bring a new sight for the Beltway -- buses. The first Fairfax Connector bus route to use the express lanes will start in January, with two more in March, Coffee said. Buses have avoided the Beltway because of congestion.