Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb said yesterday he is willing to consider easing the car-pooling requirements on Interstate Rte. 66 and that the state will move ahead "as rapidly as we can" with traffic studies to evaluate the possibility of such a rule change.
"I am very much open to any reasonable proposal to facilitate traffic on I-66, which would obviously include some ultimate easing of the HOV High Occupancy Vehicle restrictions, including some reductions in the number of people required," Robb told the Virginia Highway and Transportation Commission at a meeting in McLean.
Robb's remarks, which come the same week that three Virginia members of Congress urged him to soften the controversial rules, mark the first time the governor has publicly addressed the politically sensitive subject of the I-66 regulations.
The rules have drawn heavy criticism from many Northern Virginia commuters, who argue that it is unfair to require four-person carpools on the new 10-mile stretch of the roadway. On the other hand, traffic planners say such rules offer the only hope of moving large numbers of commuters efficiently from Northern Virginia's western suburbs to Washington.
Earlier yesterday, Virginia Highway Commissioner Harold C. King said in an interview that he will call a meeting of local, state and federal transportation officials within a month to consider easing the rules.
"I do feel that, because of local sentiment, there is room for more people to be in that corridor for a trial period to see what HOV-3 does," said King. "I'm committed to trying to encourage a trial period."
According to federal regulations, the I-66 restrictions may be modified by the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation with the agreement of federal and area transportation officials. Robb said that it was still "an open question" as to whether local planning officials would agree to ease the rules. Robb said his remarks were not intended as a response to the request earlier this week from Virginia Rep. Frank R. Wolf and Sens. John W. Warner and Paul Trible, but some transportation planners suggested political pressure may have influenced his decision.
"Obviously, there's been some pressure on them Robb and King through the public hearing process, and I think they're reacting to that and I think they're easing some in their hard line," said Ron Sarros, associate director for transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "And I'm not happy with that easing."
COG, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (Metro) have opposed proposals to ease the car-pool rules in the near future, even though its traffic volume is far less than capacity during rush hour. They say it takes time for commuters to realign their commuting habits and form car-pools.
Before a final determination can be made on the matter, Robb said, the state must complete construction of a road connecting I-66 with the Dulles Access Road and measure the connector's effect on I-66 traffic. Highway planners will also need to study the proposal's possible effect on the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, which is already running near capacity, Robb said.
He was optimistic that the traffic studies could be completed before the end of the year, however.
"Until we've got sufficient data, we ought to proceed with caution," Robb said.
Under rules that have been in effect since the road opened last December, only cars carrying four or more passengers may use I-66 inside the Capital Beltway from 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. eastbound, and from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. westbound. A recent COG study found that the restrictions are allowing the road to carry more people during peak times than it could if no restrictions were in force.
In other action at the highway commission meeting, Robb endorsed a proposal to create a new state highway district for Northern Virginia. The plan, which is expected to receive the commission's approval, would not bring Northern Virginia additional roadbuilding funds, but it would give the region a greater voice in the administration of state roads.