Consulting commuters on I-66 needs

Chris Collins, the Virginia Department of Transportation project manager working on a plan for Interstate 66, describes the status of his study this way: “We’re at the ‘What’s the problem?’ stage.” And he knows how long-suffering I-66 drivers will respond: We don’t need a study to tell us what the problem is.

Just fix it, they say.

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But Collins has worked on large-scale projects across the commonwealth during several decades with VDOT, and he rates Interstate 66 as the most complicated. There are so many factors involved in creating the traffic problems and thus many potential solutions. And if you want to finance any of those solutions, you need a study.

The zone covered by this study extends from Haymarket in the west to the Capital Beltway, about 25 miles to the east. The inner part is very different from the outer part, Collins said.

Over the next several decades, the time frame that Collins is examining, VDOT expects to see a lot more housing on the west side and a lot more job growth on the east side. That’s not a scenario for reducing traffic congestion.

“I-66 is one of the region’s most congested corridors today and will become even more congested in the future,” said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a business and civic advocacy group.

What to do?

VDOT held two public information and comment sessions last week and will be taking public comments for the rest of the month about what needs to be done with I-66. Travelers want to know if anything can be done within their commuting lifetime. Collins is optimistic about that, despite limited prospects for funding from federal and state sources.

He said the cluster of ideas that will emerge by the end of this year won’t represent an all-or-nothing package. Some could advance faster than others.

Chase has seen a lot of transportation studies. When this one is done, he said, “state and local officials must adopt a sense of urgency to funding and implementing these solutions.”

Collins talked about the potential for increasing the capacity of the corridor.

These days, when transportation planners talk about increasing capacity, they don’t put a priority on adding regular lanes. They talk about various techniques for managing traffic.

Among the top priorities for I-66 is making travel time more reliable. Commuters know a trip along Fairfax County’s Main Street is going to take a long time, but at least the time should be consistent. Some actual reductions in travel time might be possible. Choke points could be eliminated.

Planners might be able to create more travel choices and increase access along the corridor for transit users, bicyclists and pedestrians. Managed lanes and tolling are among the options to consider.

Your comments

Public comment sessions like the two last week rarely draw commuters who hope to benefit from transportation improvements. Attendees usually live near the meeting site and are drawn by fear of a project’s impact on their communities.

Commuters can e-mail their comments on what should be done on I-66. The deadline is Feb. 29. Send them to Stephen.C.Walter@Parsons.com. (Parsons Transportation Group is consulting on the study.) Or send them to CG.Collins@VDOT.Virginia.gov. Use “I-66 Tier 1 EIS: CIM Comments” in the subject line. It’s a reference to the formal title of the study.

A draft environmental impact statement on the options is scheduled to be done in June and a final one by December.

Also underway

One of the reasons the I-66 effort is so complicated is that many other projects and studies are underway, both inside and outside the Beltway. These are some highlights.

●The I-66 Spot Improvement 1, completed in December, widened westbound I-66 inside the Beltway between George Mason Drive and Sycamore Street.

●The I-495 Express Lanes (the rechristened high-occupancy toll lanes project) is rebuilding the I-66 interchange with the Beltway. The project is scheduled to be finished late this year.

I-66 is being repaved between the Beltway and Route 50. Portions already are a lot smoother. The work is to be completed this fall.

●In Gainesville, VDOT is untangling a bottleneck on Route 29 where it meets Linton Hall Road and the Norfolk Southern tracks just south of I-66. It’s scheduled to be done in mid-2015.

●Construction of the I-66/Route 234 Bypass Park and Ride, a 437-space commuter lot that will be served by PRTC buses, is to begin this spring and be finished by summer 2013.

Projects under design

●VDOT’s Active Traffic Management project is designed to make I-66 smarter over the next several years. Devices that will collect traffic information will be installed between Route 15 and the District line. The information will be relayed to a VDOT traffic center and, via electronic highway signs, to drivers.

●The second Spot Improvement, a widening between Westmoreland Drive and Haycock Road, won’t get underway till yet another study, called the I-66 Multi-Modal Study, is completed. The same goes for the third Spot Improvement, a widening between Glebe Road and Lee Highway.

●A public meeting will be held this spring on a plan to build a bus-only ramp from both HOV lanes on I-66 to the Vienna Metro station’s west side.

●Preliminary plans have been developed to widen I-66 between Route 29 in Gainesville and Route 15.

●A public hearing will be held this spring on a plan to rebuild the I-66/Route 15 interchange.

Other studies

The outside the Beltway planning effort isn’t even the only study that could affect the corridor. There’s also the I-66 Multi-Modal Study to look at ways of increasing transportation choices inside the Beltway. That’s scheduled to be completed in June.

And then there’s the “Super NOVA Vision Plan,” a study by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation looking at all of Northern Virginia. The study, scheduled to be done this fall, will develop strategies for enhancing transit and managing the demand for transportation through 2040. A series of public meetings on this will begin Feb. 13.

 
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