By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Regional transportation officials approved plans yesterday to build express toll lanes on interstates 95 and 395 and to widen parts of westbound Interstate 66 in Arlington, clearing a hurdle for the expansion of two primary commuter routes.
The votes were delayed by a month after the Transportation Planning Board raised safety issues about the projects, which faced opposition from some members and the public.
Both projects passed 23 to 4, with one abstention. Members from Prince William and Prince George's counties and the District voted against them; others said the projects would add needed capacity and increase bus service.
The next step for the I-95/395 project is for Virginia officials to negotiate an agreement with the private companies proposing them. The I-66 project must be added to the state's six-year plan before it can proceed.
The I-95/395 project would convert two carpool lanes into three high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes from south of the 14th Street Bridge to Stafford County. Tolls would fluctuate, based on the amount of traffic, to ensure that the lanes remain free-flowing. Carpools of three or more and buses could use the lanes free. Others could do so by paying tolls, which could reach more than $1 per mile.
Project officials said tolls will be managed so highway speeds average 65 mph outside the Capital Beltway and 55 mph inside it. Construction could begin next year, and the lanes could open by 2010, project officials said.
The project is a partnership between the Virginia Department of Transportation and two private companies, Fluor Virginia of Arlington and Transurban of Australia.
In exchange for permission to build the road and keep toll revenue, the companies have also promised to pay for $390 million in new bus service, six park-and-ride lots with 3,000 spaces, interchanges and an extension of the roadway to eliminate a daily bottleneck in Dumfries.
The transportation board previously approved a plan by Fluor and Transurban to build HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia from Springfield to north of the Dulles Toll Road. Construction on the project is scheduled to begin next year.
The I-66 project would connect a series of acceleration and deceleration lanes, widening the westbound roadway from two to three lanes between Fairfax Drive and Sycamore Street and expanding it between Washington Boulevard and the Dulles Airport Access Road from three lanes to four. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2010.
Expanding I-66 has long been opposed by Arlington leaders, who say a wider road would bring more traffic and pollution to their community. The idea of widening I-66 inside the Beltway has been discussed since the 10-mile stretch of the interstate opened in 1982. At the time, Arlington officials agreed to its construction in exchange for certain promises, including a four-lane limit.
At yesterday's meeting, Arlington residents said the additional lane will bring more traffic and pollution.
Holding up a yellow banner that said "Wiser Not Wider," Peter Harnik of Arlington said officials are widening the highway without exploring other options, such as increasing transit alternatives or raising carpool requirements.
"This is a simplistic solution that is basically, ready, fire, aim," he said.
Virginia officials yesterday pledged to do an intensive study on transportation alternatives along the I-66 corridor.
Project supporters say I-66 has become a regional chokepoint. Widening it would improve traffic for commuters heading west in the evening, as well as for drivers heading to the Dulles corridor in the morning. They said the additional lane would provide a better evacuation route during an emergency.
"The 'I' in I-66 does not stand for 'inter-neighborhood,' " said Bob Chase, spokesman for the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a pro-highway group.