Virginia transportation officials have pondered many ways to improve traffic flow on Interstate 66, but a push to charge solo drivers to use the roadway inside the Beltway may be their boldest gambit yet.
Officials want to require everyone traveling alone during morning and evening rush hours to pay to use the road. The cost during those high-demand commute hours would vary depending on the volume of traffic, what transportation officials call “dynamic, congestion based tolling.”
If approved, the shift could take place in 2017.
The plan is part of a broader strategy designed to improve flow on the notoriously traffic-clogged roadway. And it was one of three initiatives discussed last week during the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board’s monthly meeting.
Virginia and the District hope to include the project in the Constrained Long Range Transportation Plan, a document that identifies projects and programs planned between 2014 and 2040 that are of significance for the Washington region. Two other projects include adding toll lanes to a section of I-66 outside the Beltway and adding nine miles of bike lanes in the District.
Reneé Hamilton, deputy district administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said drivers with three or more people in their car will travel free during those peak hours, as would anyone who utilizes the enhanced public transportation services that state officials will include as part of the long-range plans.
Improvements to pedestrian and bicycle networks in the corridor are also part of VDOT’s multi-modal push for dealing with congestion.
The ultimate goal, Hamilton said, is “to create a culture on I-66 where people get out of their cars and use transit.”
Hamilton said there is hope that the same slugging culture where drivers pick up passengers along the Interstate 95/395 corridor to meet High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) requirements will grow on I-66 as drivers seek to avoid tolls.
A second element of the plan would involve widening a section of I-66 from two to three lanes in both directions between Fairfax Drive and Interstate 495. That work would be completed after 2025.
The idea is that the tolls would pay for other improvements along the corridor.
Arlington officials, who have long opposed the widening of the roadway inside the Beltway, said in December they will be involved in looking at changes and don’t think VDOT’s proposal will necessarily lead to widening.
Virginia has become a transportation laboratory of sorts, thanks to experiments such as tolling. The High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, where drivers pay varying prices depending on traffic conditions on I-95, I-395 and I-495, are examples of how Virginia is trying to influence driver behavior. But as The Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock notes, it may take years to determine whether such lanes are successful in speeding commutes, or getting people to modify their driving habits by carpooling, traveling during non-peak times or using public transportation.
There is one sign that attitudes are changing: Groups that may have been critical of such initiatives in the past now see merit in the ideas being floated.
“AAA 10 years ago would have been opposed to these projects, and most motorists would have been, too, because nobody likes tolling,” said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA-Mid Atlantic. “But then, nobody likes being stuck in traffic.
“Virginia has become a spot — this great laboratory,” he said, for initiatives like this.
But not all drivers are pleased with the prospect of tolls on a roadway they’re used to using for free.
Kyle Clifford, a junk removal specialist from Arlington, said it punishes people who don’t have the option of a flexible schedule.
“It’s hard for people to go to their boss and say ‘I can’t work 9 to 5’ ” he said, adding that others such as electricians and plumbers may not be able to carpool.
Officials at the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board were briefed on two other projects that officials hope to include in the long-range plan.
I-66 changes outside Beltway
A second project aims to reconfigure 25 miles of I-66 between I-495 and Route 15 in Prince William County. Two lanes (an existing HOV lane and a new one) would become toll lanes, and three would be regular lanes in each direction. Vehicles with three or more people would travel free in the toll lanes.
In addition, the plan would add new high-frequency commuter and rapid bus service and new or expanded commuter park-and-ride lots.
Officials with VDOT and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation are hosting information meetings on the proposal to reconfigure I-66 outside the Beltway this week. The meetings will run from 6 to 8:30 p.m., with a brief presentation slated to begin at 7 p.m. on these dates and at these locations:
●Jan. 26 — Oakton High School, 2900 Sutton Rd., Vienna
●Jan. 27 — Bull Run Elementary School, 15301 Lee Hwy., Centreville
●Jan. 28 — Battlefield High School, 15000 Graduation Dr., Haymarket
●Jan 29 — VDOT Northern Virginia District, 1st Floor, Occoquan Room, 4975 Alliance Dr., Fairfax
New D.C. bike lanes
The D.C. Department of Transportation has a plan to add 10 dedicated bike lanes to its network. Bikers will probably rejoice, and drivers will have to learn to negotiate new traffic patterns as the lanes are put into place. The estimated cost for the project is $470,000.
“A lot of these are connecting some critical gaps in the bike-lane network,” said Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT associate director for policy, planning and sustainability administration. “Some are extending bike lanes to where there are no connections at all.”
Last year, District officials added more than nine miles of bike lanes to city streets. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of the Fourth Street NW to SW lanes in December, former DDOT director Matthew Brown said cyclists could now ride a bike “from Nationals ballpark, across the Mall to downtown and beyond.”
Last year also marked the installation of the first bike lanes in Ward 8, on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. avenues. There are 69 miles of bike lanes in the city.
Biking has become an increasingly popular way to get around the District. As of 2013, about 4.5 percent of the District’s population commuted to work via bike, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. The creation of Capital Bikeshare, which celebrated its fourth year in 2014, has also boosted the popularity of biking in the city. Capital Bikeshare is hosting an open house Wednesday to talk about expansion plans and a proposed rate hike.