Virginia transportation officials have scrapped plans to build a flyover ramp near the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station and instead will find another way to deal with a Metro power substation that sits in the path of its planned expansion of Interstate 66.
The announcement by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) drew cheers from area residents, who were fearful that the concrete structure would disrupt their quiet neighborhood and hurt their property values.
But for many residents of the community in northeastern Fairfax County, the victory is just one win in a protracted fight over the project.
The ramp was part of a $2.3 billion project to add two toll lanes and three regular lanes in each direction on I-66, from Gainesville, in Prince William County, to the Capital Beltway in an effort to ease congestion on the perennially gridlocked highway.
“We’re very encouraged by it,” resident Mary Hagopian said. “But I don’t think the fight is over.”
Added state Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax), who represents the area, “Just because we resolved this one issue with the flyover doesn’t mean the rest of the issues have gone away.”
Even so, McAuliffe’s announcement on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” show gives those who have watched the project with growing anxiety some hope that they might win concessions on other concerns, including a plan to allow large trucks to use the toll lanes and the inclusion of storm-water ponds near a play area for children in the neighborhood.
Susan Shaw, director of Mega Projects for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the proposal for a flyover ramp surfaced only after VDOT officials began to reconsider an earlier plan to move the substation to land north of I-66, which the department was already acquiring for the project. Shaw said that plan was doable but not without risks. Among them: The power station would be rebuilt in a residential neighborhood, she said. There also was the possibility that moving it could delay the project, because relocating Metro-owned buildings and utilities can be complicated and expensive.
In the meantime, Shaw said, VDOT had begun the process for selecting a partner to build and operate the toll lanes that will be part of the I-66 expansion. The contract was awarded last year to I-66 Express Mobility Partners. Aware of VDOT’s concerns about relocating the power station, the group proposed an alternative: Instead of moving the power substation, a ramp would be built over it.
Revisions to the early plan weren’t immediately shared with residents, who said they learned about it only after seeing it mentioned on Twitter. Part of that, Shaw said, was because of confidentiality requirements around the selection of a private partner that would build the project.
The result was that some residents felt blindsided because the new plans included elements — such as the storm-water ponds — that were not part of an agreement they reached with VDOT officials in 2015.
And then there was the flyover.
“We understood there was this black period when we weren’t going to hear anything,” said Deana Heier, one of the residents who has helped organize the neighborhood. “But once they picked the private partner, these designs could have come out.”
Now the flyover is no more.
“We are back to the drawing board,” Shaw said.
Shaw said it’s possible that the substation could be moved to another location on Metro property. Express Mobility Partners will be responsible for the cost as long as it is equal to or less than its original proposal to build a flyover ramp. If it is more expensive, it would be up to the state to make up the difference. If, however, the plan saves money, the state would share in the savings, she said.
In recent days, both VDOT and representatives of Express Mobility Partners have met with residents, raising hopes that a compromise can be worked out.
“The overarching goal is to limit or reduce the horizontal and vertical footprint of the project while still moving more people safely and efficiently,” Shaw said in an email. “Every effort will be made to maintain the horizontal and vertical footprints that were presented previously to the public.”
Construction on the project is expected to begin this year and be completed in 2022. VDOT officials said the expansion will add 22.5 miles of roadway and will mean that, by 2040, about 150,000 more people each day will be able to move through the corridor. Drivers will have the option of traveling in regular lanes or paying a toll to use “express lanes.” The toll, like those on the 495 Express Lanes, will vary depending on traffic.
Neighbors say they understand the need to expand I-66 but add that they just want to ensure that it’s done in a way that keeps their concerns in mind.
“We’re not trying to stop this project,” Heier said. “We’re trying to make sure it doesn’t forget about us, run over us. I’m still hopeful [we] can get back to a place where there’s more of a discussion. In a way, it’s easy we all agree on one thing: Everyone wants traffic to get better here.’”