Debate Continues On Widening I-66

Widening I-66 inside the Beltway has been debated since the stretch opened in 1982.
Widening I-66 inside the Beltway has been debated since the stretch opened in 1982. (By Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007

About 200 people filled the cafeteria at Washington-Lee High School recently to discuss with state officials a controversial plan to widen a portion of Interstate 66 inside the Beltway. It was the first of three public workshops scheduled to talk about design changes the state plans for the highway.

But the only ideas discussed at the two-hour meeting were those proffered by transportation and state elected officials, participants said, leaving many of them frustrated and disappointed.

The proposed improvements include the extension of the on-ramp from Fairfax Drive to Sycamore Street, the extension of the merge lane from Washington Boulevard to the Dulles Access Road, the addition of a lane on the Washington Boulevard on-ramp and the extension of the on-ramp from Lee Highway (Route 29) at Spout Run to Glebe Road.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority has recommended moving forward with the improvements and the state Transportation Planning Board has approved $9.6 million in funding for the work.

Yet the "vast majority" of the workshop participants are opposed to the plan, said Jason Rylander, vice president of the Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation. "I came away from the meeting with the feeling that they weren't really looking for public input, that it was more of a session telling people what they plan to do and that no amount of voices or concern from the public would change their minds about this," he said.

Arlington County Board member Walter Tejada (D) agreed that the session was a "waste of two hours."

"It appears . . . that the changes will happen," Tejada said Monday. "But adding extra lanes is not a magic solution."

Instead, Tejada said, the county supports such alternatives as increasing the use of buses and other public transportation.

The idea of widening I-66 inside the Beltway has been discussed in various forms since the 10-mile stretch of the interstate opened in 1982. It gained momentum several years ago when Republican Reps. Frank R. Wolf and Thomas M. Davis III asked then-Gov. Mark R. Warner to reexamine the possibility of adding an outbound lane from the Rosslyn tunnel to the Dulles Toll Road connector, calling that portion of the interstate a "chokepoint, morning, noon and night."

Widening the road would improve traffic for commuters heading west in the evening, as well as reverse commuters heading for the Dulles corridor in the morning, Wolf and Davis said. They also said the additional lane would provide a better evacuation route in the event of a regional emergency.

Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the planned improvements to the acceleration and deceleration lanes are "designed to improve traffic flow and ease congestion." She said one more workshop is planned for the summer and a public hearing is slated to occur at the end of the year, with final drafts of the design plan scheduled to be drawn in 2008.

Arlington residents and elected officials have been vocal critics of widening the roadway, arguing that a 1977 agreement between then-U.S. Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman Jr. and the state of Virginia to limit the highway to two lanes in each direction should stand despite the pact having been modified several times since.

As part of the agreement, Arlington dropped its opposition to the construction of I-66 in exchange for certain promises, including a four-lane limit, sound barriers, carpool requirements and truck restrictions. Since then, many of those limits have been amended. For example, two-person carpools have replaced the initial HOV four-person requirement.

County Board member Paul Ferguson (D) responded in a 2003 letter to Warner that the Wolf-Davis proposal was "unacceptable for Arlington County." Instead, the county suggested that the state consider other ways to reduce congestion, including the extension of Metrorail to Tysons Corner and Dulles Airport. The county also proposed restoring previous HOV levels for both inside and outside the Beltway.

The county's position has not changed, Tejada said.

Opponents of the project also are concerned about the impact the changes will have on the bike trail that runs adjacent to the interstate and the surrounding neighborhoods.

State officials have said that no trails will be destroyed, nor will any homes be torn down.

Ken Mobley, principal planner at the Parsons Corp., the firm hired by VDOT to study congestion on I-66, said the firm recommended solutions that can be accomplished in the current right-of-way.

Mobley, citing the study's findings, said the improvements will trim travel time from Rosslyn to Dulles Airport by about seven minutes. Arlington residents will also benefit, he said.

"One of the things we have seen is a phenomenal increase in traffic over the years in the eastbound and westbound lanes," he said. "It's a very complicated mix of traffic. There are people who use I-66 to get around Arlington and others who use it to get to Dulles and other areas of the region."

But Rylander and other critics are not convinced.

"If you look at the proposed design, the solutions trade some bottlenecks for new ones," Rylander said. "I came away annoyed because the message being sent by residents wasn't being heard loud and clear by VDOT."

More information about the project can be found at the state's Web site,http://idea66.com.


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