Vote to Forgo I-66 Expansion Imperils Federal Funds, Increases Ire

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

The decision this week to abandon plans to widen Interstate 66 inside the Capitol Beltway inflamed tensions between transit-friendly inner jurisdictions and auto-dependent outer counties and jeopardized $30 million in federal funds.

The vote by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government's Transportation Planning Board caught many by surprise. The $75 million project was approved 23 to 4 in May 2007. The turnabout reflected perceived foot-dragging by the Virginia Department of Transportation on a study of all transportation alternatives in the I-66 corridor, board members and staff said.

Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County Board member who serves on the transportation panel, made the motion to table the project after a VDOT official said the full study was unfunded and would take at least three to four years to complete.

"It was, 'Oh, that's not funded?' That offended a lot of people. . . . Then what are we doing here? It indicated a certain amount of contempt for the process that took a lot of people by surprise," Zimmerman said.

The I-66 project would connect a series of acceleration and deceleration lanes, effectively widening the westbound road 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.

The first phase of the widening, a 1.5-mile stretch from Fairfax Drive to Sycamore, was scheduled to start next year. State transportation officials said the project would be delayed at least three to four years, the amount of time it would take to do a full environmental assessment of the corridor. Only $1.5 million of the estimated $15 million cost of the study is funded. VDOT officials said the project was never contingent on a full-blown study.

Now, Virginia officials are scrambling to save the project and a $30 million federal earmark sponsored by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and former representative Tom Davis (R). Expanding I-66 has long been opposed by Arlington leaders and transit advocates, 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.

"It's being rammed down our throats by Congressman Wolf, and it isn't even his district," said Peter Harnik, who lives in the Maywood section of Arlington. "We need to be wiser, not wider."

Project supporters say I-66 has become a regional choke point. Widening it would improve traffic for commuters heading west in the evening and for drivers heading to the Dulles corridor in the morning. They said the additional lane would provide a better evacuation route during an emergency.

"This is the same old, same old from Arlington," said Dan Scandling, a spokesman for Wolf. "Anything they can do to jam up this project, they will. You've got $30 million sitting on the table to improve transportation in Virginia. And there is already mass transit in the corridor, and no homes will be taken."

But the swing votes during Wednesday's meeting turned out to be Fairfax County's. Both of Fairfax's representatives on the panel, county supervisors Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) and Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), voted against the project and for Zimmerman's amendment. If they had switched votes, the project would have proceeded.

The vote removed the I-66 project from the regional list of approved projects for next year's transportation improvement plan. The issue could be revisited as early as next month.

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