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Widening Vote on I-66 May Not Be the Last Word in the Battle

The planned spot improvements along Interstate 66 aren't likely to clear all bottlenecks, VDOT says. It says express buses, changes in rules for carpools and HOT lanes are some of the potential solutions.
The planned spot improvements along Interstate 66 aren't likely to clear all bottlenecks, VDOT says. It says express buses, changes in rules for carpools and HOT lanes are some of the potential solutions. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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Sunday, March 22, 2009

A regional transportation panel reversed itself last week, approving funding to widen the first 1.5-mile stretch of westbound Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway. The move reversed a decision by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board last month to strip the $75 million project from the region's transportation plan. But don't get too excited. It's probably not the last word in the decades-long battle to widen the road. Here's how we got here:

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The Spotty History of Interstate 66

In the middle of the 20th century, when the auto was king and its future limitless, highways seemed unstoppable. Today, it's hard to get one started. Maryland's Intercounty Connector is one of the few new highways under construction. Most other major work involves expanding the capacity of existing roads. This is the tale of the controversy dogging plans to expand I-66 inside the Beltway.

Key Link for Commuters

Interstate 66, which links Foggy Bottom to the Blue Ridge, does not fit the classic concept of the Interstate Highway Program, meant to link major regions of the nation. I-66 was conceived as part of a larger network of highways through the Washington region. The full network was not built, in large part because people in the District and Arlington County rebelled against it during the 1960s and '70s. They saw no reason to bust up their communities for the sake of solo drivers coming from out of town. Despite restrictions on its use, the 77-mile highway still became the major east-west interstate for Northern Virginia commuters traveling across the growing suburbs of Washington. Inside the Capital Beltway, though, I-66 shrinks from three lanes to two lanes in each direction. During the morning and evening rushes, the most heavily used lanes are open only to carpoolers. Commuters from the western suburbs chafe at these restrictions.

Highway Politics

Half a century after the highway was conceived, the battle lines remain basically the same. Drivers from the outer suburbs resent the notion that one jurisdiction, like Arlington, could block a state project. Many people in transit-friendly and densely populated Arlington say they didn't want this highway in the first place and will fiercely resist efforts to expand it. The Virginia state government has two problems. It wants to ease the commute for the outer suburbs while not greatly angering the inner suburbs. And it doesn't have much money for major transportation improvements. So it came up with a program with those concerns in mind.

Spot Improvements

The Virginia Department of Transportation identified the three most-congested portions of the westbound roadway inside the Beltway and proposed a plan that would widen I-66 within its existing right of way. That trick would be accomplished by connecting some of the merge lanes in those areas so they could be used as travel lanes. This became known as the spot improvements program. The spots are Spout Run to Glebe Road, Fairfax Drive to Sycamore Street and Washington Boulevard to the Dulles Connector. VDOT says the program will include improved enforcement, safety pull-offs, better sight distances, ramp metering to regulate highway access, better signs and other traffic management improvements. Further, VDOT says, the design preserves the Custis Trail and doesn't preclude future transit options in the corridor. VDOT never suggested that the spot improvements would unplug the I-66 corridor and acknowledged that other options need to be developed, including express buses, high-occupancy toll lanes or changes in the carpool rules. The planners agreed to study all those things but said the spot improvements were something that could be done relatively soon and would provide some relief. Specifically, VDOT said, they will improve travel time, reduce delays at Route 29 intersections, improve traffic flow between Washington Boulevard's on-ramp and the Dulles Connector Road, and improve safety by allowing more room for merging.

Issues

What's not to like? Some people just don't believe there's any reason to spend millions on making I-66 more hospitable to cars. What others see as a highway, they see as a noise and air pollution factory. Others focus on what they believe will be the unintended consequences of the highway redesign. For example, they worry that traffic will back up on the ramps and onto local roads because highway merging will become more difficult. Some opponents believe the concept itself is flawed. They predict that the redesign will simply move the congestion to new chokepoints. Sure, you can widen segments, but eventually those cars are going to have to merge back. The most recent dust-up occurred at the February meeting of the Transportation Planning Board. It's a regional panel with a low profile but a huge amount of power in deciding which road and transit projects can proceed. Critics of the spot improvements program didn't believe Virginia was fulfilling its commitment to study all options for easing travel along the I-66 corridor, and on the spur of the moment, they demanded a vote on blocking the spot improvements until the state completed the "multi-modal" study. They won, for one month. On Wednesday, the board voted again. This time, the two supervisors from Fairfax County, which supports the improvements, reversed their February no votes. Bottom line: VDOT has the money for just one of the spot improvements, the Fairfax Drive to Sycamore Street section, which could begin next year. That's funded thanks to a congressional earmark by Rep. Frank R. Wolf and former congressman Tom Davis, both from districts where those I-66 drivers live. VDOT told the planning board that it wouldn't commit money for the other two improvements -- money it doesn't have -- until it finishes the study of other transportation options. How do you see it? Write to us at commuter@washpost.com.

-- Robert Thomson


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