THE ISSUES Widening Interstate 66

Stepping Gingerly Through Bottleneck

Candidates Wary of Voters' Strong Feelings

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

This is one in a series of stories about issues being discussed by the Democratic candidates for governor of Virginia, who will stand for the primary Tuesday.

It is quite possibly the most vexing highway in all of Virginia: the only westbound interstate out of Washington and one of the only interstates that narrows as it approaches a major city -- where traffic is heavy in both directions morning and night.

It's Interstate 66, the 75-mile highway that ferries commuters from Front Royal to Foggy Bottom -- and politicians weigh in on its future at their peril.

If it seems like a no-brainer to support widening I-66 inside the Capital Beltway, think again. That discounts Arlington County, the inner suburb where the highway's most maddening traffic stops and goes -- but where many residents and leaders are adamant about leaving the road's capacity alone.

Not supporting more lanes, meanwhile, is anathema to outer-suburb commuters (and voters) from western Fairfax County, Prince William County and beyond, who struggle with the highway's multiple bottlenecks on a daily basis.

All of which explains the cautious pronouncements of the three Democratic candidates for governor, who will square off in a primary Tuesday.

R. Creigh Deeds, the state senator from rural Bath County, and Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, who lives in McLean, said they support widening I-66 through Arlington if it stays within the existing footprint, meaning that no additional land would be taken. Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican nominee, shares that view.

Brian Moran, a former state delegate from Alexandria, holds a slightly different view. Moran said he supports plans to make "spot improvements" to the westbound side of I-66, but he offered no opinion on a wholesale widening from four lanes to six.

Moran is taking a position similar to that of his brother, Rep. James P. Moran Jr., who has long represented Arlington in Congress. Rep. Moran supports improving the westbound lanes but not the eastbound lanes, because the eastbound side cannot be widened without taking land and houses.

All of the candidates have learned to exercise care when addressing the issue, on which any position is sure to make someone unhappy.

Barbara A. Favola (D), chairman of the Arlington County Board, is among those who flatly oppose any expansion of I-66. Favola said that adding capacity will simply increase demand. More cars and trucks will come, and the rush-hour bottleneck at Constitution Avenue in the District will grow, she said.

"We really want a governor who understands that, in Northern Virginia at least, we're growing too fast," Favola said. "Roads do not have the capacity to grow."

Reps. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who both represent farther-flung commuters, disagree.

Connolly and Wolf said I-66 can be widened inside the Beltway, at least on the westbound side, without changing its footprint. They agree with Favola that the corridor also should have bus-rapid transit service and more rail service. But the roadway is failing right now, they said, and the state must do something about it.

"We need more capacity," Connolly said. "I-66 gets completely bollixed because of the contours of the road and inadequate capacity when everything gets funneled into two lanes. It adds to pollution and enormous congestion, and I think it's actually the citizens of Arlington and Falls Church who suffer."

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