Transportation experts also say that even if all of the road proposals were approved today, it would take years for them to be built, and they still wouldn't be big enough to get everyone where they want to go.
"Given any kind of scenario in terms of new capacity that we might realistically be able to build, there will still be gridlock if everybody tries to travel at one time," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
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There is a history to linking highway projects and national security. Planning for a national highway system began as early as the 1930s, but the idea didn't gain traction until the 1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sold the plan for a national interstate system as a way to connect major cities as well as move military equipment and personnel.
The legislation establishing the interstate system, signed by Eisenhower in 1956, termed it the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
Area transportation officials stress that touting homeland security as a reason to build a road is secondary to its primary need in relieving day-to-day traffic problems.
"Obviously, putting another lane on [I-66] would help people get out of the city" in case of an attack, said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who shortly after Sept. 11 identified a rail extension to Dulles International Airport as one key to regional security. "But that's just one of the needs. It's gridlock every morning and every night, seven days a week."
In the case of I-66, the benefits in an evacuation could be limited, officials said. If the road was widened within the existing right of way, as instructed by the state, only about 6 feet of pavement would be added to the width, including shoulders. Project managers say that would be enough to remove some bottlenecks and probably get more cars through.
"I think the possibilities improve a little bit under the proposed scenarios," said Steve Walter of Parsons Transportation Group, a consultant on the I-66 project. But "we keep talking about big episodic events," he said. "The truth of the matter is these proposals are much more designed toward the day-to-day, where we get much more benefit."