Over the mountains from Winchester and through the exurbs to Washington I come to be home for the holidays. I travel on Interstate 66, the last leg of which on Wednesday will make a gilded $275-million Christmas gift to suburban commuters.
Suburban commuters, no doubt, will be delighted with their long-awaited last link. I hope potholes swallow their carpools, for two reasons:
First, we all will soon be paying 120 percent more in federal fuel taxes--oops, make that user fees--to fill potholes in the nation's interstates. Incredibly, part of the new nickel fee will pay for even more new interstates like the last link of I-66, just when the country is realizing it can't afford to repair what it already has.
And if your basic interstate-highway pothole repair is expensive now, imagine what it will cost to maintain the likes of I-66's last link. State highway officials say it may be the most expensive stretch of highway ever built in Virginia. It certainly must be the most complex.
This 10-mile stretch from the Capital Beltway to the Potomac features traffic lights on entrance ramps, sensors imbedded in the pavement and central computers and the staff to run them--road gadgetry designed to regulate rush-hour flow. The road even adds a new term to the local highway lexicon: HOVs--"high-occupancy vehicles," or what most people call carpools.
So complex is the road that users apparently need special education to drive it. A multi-media barrage with slide shows, newsletters and posters is preparing suburban Virginia commuters for the proper use of this state-of-the-art highway.
Cost and complications aside, though, let's get to the real reason I dislike the last link of I-66: I resent it.
The very last 4.5 miles of this high-tech, multi-modal car-train-bus-and-bike transportation complex knifes through the heart of Arlington, my hometown, my old neighborhood. Road work for the county's westernmost interchange, in fact, sliced off a hefty chunk of the front yard at the humble brick colonial that, from my infancy to adulthood, was home for the Loomis family. Relocation and widening of streets in the old neighborhood have wiped out much of one whole block, moving about half a dozen of the 500 families in the county whose houses fell before I-66.
We knew it was coming. It seemed as if I-66 stalked my youth. I remember losing one of my elementary school buddies, Harry Logan, when he moved to another neighborhood back in 1959 because his house was in the projected path of I-66. I lost a lot of good customers on my paper route, too, when a whole row of big Victorian houses near East Falls Church was demolished to make way for I-66. And as a student at George Washington University in the early '70s, I attended raucous public hearings at my alma mater, Washington-Lee High School, on the path of I-66.
When it was inevitable, the Loomises did not have to move. But 11 years ago, envisioning the front yard as a stone retaining wall, move we did.
Now and again, en route to the new downtown family homestead, I have driven through the old neighborhood to keep up with the changes. Over this Thanksgiving, though, I walked it. I hiked up a hill above the quarry where, according to local lore, stone was taken for the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad trestle over Roosevelt Street and the creek just below. There an old Filipino gent on my paper route would reminisce when I came every month to collect at the house he built in the woods next to the quarry. He would recall how he and his wife would flag down westbound W&OD trains for day excursions to Bluemont at the base of the Blue Ridge. I recall freights running up until the mid-'60s. But the trains stopped rolling and their horns stopped sounding when the right-of-way was acquired for I-66.
From the rim of the quarry, I looked down on an unopened stretch of highway, and I could imagine the silence being broken on the inaugural morning by the noise pollution of scores of thousands of daily commuters in cars, buses and trains.
They probably will not care when they flash past Exit 22 that the 100-foot-wide blanket of concrete on which they zip through Arlington-- between walls and sound barriers four stories tall in spots--has choked the railroad's song, buried a gurgling creek and dimmed a lot of boyhood memories.
No wonder native Arlingtonians are a rare breed. And no wonder the traditional American movement to the cities has halted. The 1980 Census shows the smallest urban growth in more than a century and a half. Urban refugees are fleeing to smaller cities and towns where neighborhoods aren't sliced up by blacktop, creeks aren't paved over, the freights still whine and, for unreconstructed urban refugees near Winchester, even the commuter trains run each workday between nearby Harpers Ferry and Washington.
Thanks to I-66, Arlington becomes more of a highway exit than a hometown. It's a nice place to commute through. But I wouldn't want to live there anymore.