By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005
Virginia transportation officials yesterday recommended adding a third lane to the westbound side of Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway, reigniting a debate between the inner and outer suburbs of Washington over how to ease traffic on one of the region's most congested highways.
Officials said the lane could be added within the highway's existing right of way and recommended a bus, carpool or toll lane. They estimated that its cost would be between $112 million and $233 million, depending on which option was chosen.
"There's a capacity issue on I-66," said Dennis C. Morrison, Northern Virginia administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "It happens every day, and it's not going to get any better. Widening I-66 inside the Beltway within the existing right of way is a reasonable tool to reduce congestion."
Additionally, officials recommended making interim fixes as small as improving road signs and as ambitious as widening the shoulder for use in the event of an evacuation of the nation's capital. The costs of the short-term improvements would range from $2 million to $45 million.
The recommendations, after a study of a six-mile stretch between Scott Street in Rosslyn and the Dulles Access Road just across the Fairfax County line, are the latest ammunition in a debate that has raged since before that stretch of highway opened in 1982.
I-66 was conceived as eight lanes but was reduced to four in an agreement with Arlington residents upset about the project's effect on their community. The agreement also excluded trucks from the road and restricted it to carpoolers during peak hours.
The debate has heightened in recent years, as both directions of I-66 jam in mornings as commuters head east to jobs in the District and west to jobs in Tysons Corner and the Dulles corridor. The same happens at night when everyone heads home. I-66 also is often overwhelmed on weekends and times when most roads are free from congestion.
"There's never a day when it's not bumper-to-bumper," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who initiated the study with Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). Both are longtime supporters of widening who represent districts that are mostly outside the Beltway. Wolf said adding a third lane would "make a big impact" on reducing regional traffic.
Wolf and other supporters said they hoped that confining a new lane to the road's existing right of way would blunt opposition from residents concerned about its reach into their neighborhoods.
It didn't. Opponents, who welcomed the study when it was announced last spring because they thought it would bolster their position, criticized its findings.
"While we certainly had hopes that this would be a new way of doing things for VDOT, it's clear the public forums in the fall were mostly for show, and they've resisted any meaningful public involvement or debate," said Jason Rylander, president of the Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation. "The study seems to have been designed to reach a predetermined conclusion."
Rylander said he believes that capacity concerns can be solved by raising carpool limits from two people per vehicle to three and by making small fixes to the highway.
He and other opponents also said another lane will just add more traffic and air quality problems to Arlington.
"Add another lane," said Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. "Is there anyone who doesn't believe we'll have six lanes of tie-ups? What reason is there to believe this will do anything but provide temporary relief? And there's not even evidence that there would be temporary relief."
Zimmerman also said any widening would simply create new jams because the road would funnel to two lanes where it goes into a tunnel in Rosslyn.
The study's findings were presented during a regular meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which will decide whether to add the road widening to state plans. State officials said they expected a decision in a few months.