I-66 needs more than a widening

Robert Thomson
Columnist May 14, 2011

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Why is Virginia spending millions of dollars to resurface Interstate 66 from Route 50 to the Capital Beltway? I agree the road needs to be resurfaced, but let’s spend money to widen that section of the interstate.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Using the shoulder during rush hour helps, but that is not a safe solution to the bottleneck on eastbound I-66 in the morning and westbound I-66 in the afternoon. I-66 east is backed up before Route 50 every morning, usually back to the Fairfax County Parkway and beyond.

In the afternoon, it’s backed up at the Beltway until you get beyond Route 123.

With the changes planned for the I-66/Beltway interchange for the high-occupancy toll lanes, it seems to me that widening I-66 from Route 50 to the Beltway needs to be considered. I know it will be expensive, and there are many interchanges and overpasses that will need to be rebuilt, but why repave an interstate that hopefully will be widened in the near future?

— Rick Sauer, Warrenton

Many drivers who have been roughing it along I-66’s crumbling concrete will welcome the Virginia Department of Transportation’s $48 million project to resurface 6 1 / 2 miles of the highway west of the Beltway. That should be done by fall 2012.

As our writer says, repaving alone won’t ease their troubles. They sit in some of the very worst rush-hour congestion in the Washington region. But the new pavement will probably wear out before a significant widening can occur in that zone. At the moment, there’s no public plan for financing such an expansion.

I share Sauer’s goal of easing the I-66 congestion — in fact, I think it’s crucial — but there are a range of solutions we could try before a widening occurs.

Several things are in the works. Sauer refers to one: Reconstruction of the I-66/Beltway interchange for the HOT lanes project should be done by the end of next year. The redesign can ease traffic not only for the paying customers on the Beltway but also for I-66 drivers.

Meanwhile, VDOT has scheduled a June start for a study on how to improve travel along I-66 inside the Beltway, addressing the predicted needs for the next three decades.

The study, which will take a year to complete, will evaluate a slew of transit, bike, pedestrian, operational and highway solutions to congestion, said VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris. The public will be invited to participate.

Also starting next month is an environmental impact study covering a 25-mile section of I-66 from the Beltway west to Haymarket. The first tier of the study will take a year, Morris said. And it’s not just about pavement. The study will consider a variety of options, including extended train service and express bus service.

That’s good. If we simply expand the pavement, we’re just issuing an invitation for more commuters to drive alone, and the congestion relief would be short-lived.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton often mentions another plan when he’s in Northern Virginia: “active traffic management” for I-66. That’s managing congestion through technology and traffic controls, reducing the likelihood of crashes, making trip times more reliable and giving travelers more up-to-date information to make decisions.

Much of the initial focus of the traffic management plan will be on that zone between the Beltway and Route 50, which handles about 200,000 vehicles a day, Morris said. Look for work on this starting in summer 2012.

Signs can provide travel-time estimates to key destinations, and the signs can be placed ahead of decision points so drivers know the likely outcomes of taking different routes.

Lane-control signs could be installed about every half-mile on I-66 between the Beltway and Route 50, giving motorists warning that a lane is closed ahead so they can begin to merge before they enter the problem area.

As Sauer noted, Virginia opens the shoulder lanes on I-66 during rush periods, but equipment upgrades could allow the shoulders to be opened any time it would help ease congestion stemming from a major incident. That sort of change, involving significant safety issues, would require federal approval.

Active traffic management is a $32 million project for VDOT. It’s certainly a lot cheaper, and therefore easier and faster to do, than widening the highway.

But notice the emphasis on managing, rather than solving, the traffic problem. Managed traffic is still traffic, the kind that comes off I-66 in the morning and gets dumped onto Constitution Avenue. Getting solo drivers to try alternatives has to be part of the solution.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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