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What hopes for traffic relief on I-66?

Fixing traffic on I-66, seen here near Vienna, will require many changes involving the roadway and transit. (Karen Bleier/AFP-Getty Images)

Two drivers had this to say about congestion-easing plans for Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia.

I-66 improvements: So I know the Virginia Department of Transportation is working to introduce what they call “Active Traffic Management” along I-66, but what good will additional signs and lane control arrows do? The section between 50 and 495 is congested seven days a week and weekends are often worse than weekdays. They really need a fourth full-time lane in that stretch. It’s ridiculous that there are four lanes all the way from Gainesville (and soon from Haymarket) in to Fair Oaks and then it’s down to three from there to the Beltway, despite higher traffic volumes in that stretch. Any hope of a new lane?

HOT Lanes for I-66: Currently, the HOV restrictions on I-66 are part time, which means that the HOV lane is available for anyone/everyone to use the rest of the day and on weekends. If they convert it to a HOT lane, odds are it would be toll 24/7 taking a lane away from I-66 for general use. I can only see that as a way to make traffic worse for everyone. Please tell me they wouldn’t do such a stupid thing.

DG: The two comments, from recent online discussions, reflect the widespread concern for one of the D.C. region’s longest and slowest commuter routes.

I-66 map I-66 takes drivers on one of the longest, slowest commutes in the D.C. region.

I think it’s likely we’ll see high-occupancy toll lanes on I-66 at some point, but that need not be a straight-up conversion of the HOV lanes into toll and carpool lanes. The plan that emerges for I-66 is likely to be a lot more complicated.

Virginia solicited proposals from private companies for better managing the I-66 traffic, but we haven’t seen a plan yet. In fact, the state and federal government are in the midst of a studying a variety of proposals for congestion relief between the Capital Beltway and Route 15.

That study considers these possibilities:

  • More general purpose lanes.
  • Create managed lanes. An HOV is a managed lane. So is a high-occupancy toll lane. If Virginia went for HOT lanes, the project could involve one or two lanes in each direction. Carpoolers could travel for free in the HOT lanes, but it’s likely that the carpool requirement would be at least three people per vehicle, rather than today’s two in the I-66 HOV lanes.
  • Expand Metrorail west to either Centreville or Haymarket.
  • Build light rail west from Vienna to either Centreville or Haymarket.
  • Create a bus rapid transit system from Vienna to Haymarket, possibly with an extension east from Vienna.
  • Extend VRE to Gainesville and Haymarket.
  • Focus on fixing chokepoints.
  • Make it easier to get from one type of transport to another along the corridor.
  • Improve safety and transportation communication. (As in, Active Traffic Management.)

Impact of tolling
The study acknowledges that drivers are likely to react to tolled lanes in several ways, including by shifting to regular lanes, changing their travel times and transferring to other modes of travel, such as buses or trains. Drivers could also shift to other roads in the same east-west corridor, which would add to the traffic volume and delays on those other roads.

Tolling is not something I-66 drivers will encounter in the next few years. Another long period of study is ahead, federal approvals would be needed, and a contract with a private partner would have to be negotiated. Tolling isn’t just about managing traffic. The private partner signs on to take some of the construction cost off the taxpayers in exchange for the right to recoup the investment through tolling.

Inside the Beltway
A separate study reviewed possibilities for improvements on I-66 inside the Beltway. See a pdf of that 140-page I-66 Multi-Modal Study.

Whatever happens on I-66, it can’t be just one or two things. The problem is so big, it will require a variety of traffic mitigation programs. The Active Traffic Management system that’s being installed this year is a first step. The lane markers and message boards are designed to guide drivers to the best travel lanes, warn of hazards ahead and suggest alternative routes. It’s scheduled to go live in early 2015 — and it’s not a HOT lane system.

Another step scheduled for late this year is the opening of shoulders inside the Beltway to commuter bus traffic during rush hours.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.

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