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495 Express Lanes expected to open Saturday

Elected officials, business leaders and others involved in bringing the 495 Express Lanes to life gathered in Tysons Corner on Tuesday to celebrate the opening of the new carpool and toll lanes.

The Express Lanes are slated to open to traffic at 2 a.m. Saturday, which Gov. Robert F. McDonnell described as “tremendously exciting news for travel-weary Northern Virginia commuters.”

McDonnell (R) and other elected officials praised the bipartisan cooperation that brought the project to fruition during the course of three Virginia administrations, as well as the smoothness with which the public-private partnership was executed. Private partners Fluor and Transurban completed the project on budget and slightly ahead of schedule, and with a solid safety record.

The new Beltway lanes will be free for vehicles carrying three or more passengers while other drivers can pay a variable toll to escape gridlock in the regular lanes. The project also will allow express buses to travel on the Beltway for the first time.

For maps and other information about the Express Lanes, visit 495expresslanes.com.

School system begins superintendent search

On Monday, the Fairfax County School Board agreed on a timeline to collect community input and decide on a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Jack D. Dale. In fall 2011, Dale announced his plans to retire July 1, 2013.

The school system will open an online survey for community comments beginning Nov. 26.

School Board members and the consultant hired to organize the search are planning on hosting community meetings Dec. 2 through Dec. 7. Feedback then will be organized and delivered to the School Board during a regular business meeting scheduled for Dec. 20.

Additional community meetings are planned for Jan. 7 and Jan. 14, with the goal of interviewing candidates in the spring. The School Board said Monday it hopes to announce Dale’s replacement in May.

VDOT will introduce new tools this winter

The Virginia Department of Transportation plans to introduce a slate of new tools and equipment this winter to combat the effects of snow, sleet and slush on area roads.

A new online tool shows the status of plowing in Northern Virginia neighborhoods. Once it snows more than 2 inches, residents can enter their address and see a color-coded snow map that shows whether plowing is under way, completed or not yet started in their neighborhood.

A new truck-mounted weather station will help VDOT staff monitor road and weather conditions to ensure that crews do not over- or under-apply chemicals.

VDOT also installed a new salt dome located at the Beltway and Van Dorn Street that will hold 22,000 tons of salt — about three times the capacity of a typical salt dome.

The agency also has a handful of new trucks serving the Northern Virginia area, including four super-sized front loaders that can push snow with 20-foot-wide blades or scoop snow with massive buckets, which can be used to clear interstates during severe winter storms, like those the area experienced in 2010. In addition, seven high-pressure flush trucks are dedicated to clearing snow and ice that is expected to accumulate around the bollards that separate the new 495 Express Lanes from the regular lanes.

A portable snow melter will be used in park-and-ride lots, where massive piles of snow take away needed parking spaces.

Overall, VDOT has nearly 4,000 trucks and plows available in Northern Virginia, mostly through contractors, a 1,200-truck increase from 2010.

VDOT also plans to expand its pretreating program for roads using brine. Brine is less costly and also is considered better for the environment than pure salt.

What hasn’t increased is the agency’s budget for snow removal in Northern Virginia, which remains at $55 million. Last winter, the agency spent only $35 million, which was far less than its budget, due to the mild winter.