The 495 Express Lanes in the middle of the Capital Beltway, seen here in Tysons Corner, opened in November 2012. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

[This post has been updated.]
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne has sent letters to Northern Virginia leaders informing them that the state will study the idea of adding high occupancy toll lanes to I-66 inside the Capital Beltway.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration has said repeatedly that it hopes to develop a plan for I-66 HOT lanes outside the Capital Beltway in Fairfax County. But the letter makes plain that solutions for traffic congestion inside the Beltway could also include HOT lanes.

The letter, dated Tuesday and sent to the leaders of Fairfax County, the city of Falls Church and Arlington County, previews the state’s intentions dealing with one of the top transportation issues in Northern Virginia.

It says in part:

With the pending improvements to the Corridor outside the Beltway,” Layne wrote, “I believe it is appropriate to take the next step on improvements inside the Beltway. I am writing to let you know that the Commonwealth plans to initiate an environmental assessment to advance a package of multimodal improvements benefiting users inside the Beltway.

The final package of improvements will be developed through this process with input from your communities and affected stakeholders.

The McAuliffe Administration is interested in advancing a multimodal set of improvements for this Corridor inside the Beltway that include conversion of the facility during the peak periods to “HOT Lanes,” improving Metrorail capacity and other facilities, enhancing bus service and associated facilities, and other transportation demand management initiatives.

“Multimodal” is a planning term for transportation proposals that may include cars, buses, heavy and light rail, biking and walking options, all of which have been part of the state’s reviews of I-66 solutions. But Virginia is a leader among states in opting for HOT lanes as a method of adding capacity to highways. On Sunday, the 95 Express Lanes, one of the nation’s biggest highway projects, is scheduled to open along 29 miles of I-95 and I-395 from Stafford to Fairfax counties. The I-95 lanes will connect with a two-year-old segment of express lanes on the Beltway from Springfield to Tysons Corner, forming a 40-mile network of HOT lanes.

Such lanes allow buses and drivers who meet carpool rules to travel free. Drivers who don’t meet the carpool rules can pay a toll for access. The advantage in all cases is that the travelers get a quicker and more reliable trip than those in the regular lanes of the highways. The Virginia express lanes feature all-electronic tolling. The tolls have no upper limit, varying with the level of traffic.

“This is great news,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said. “It is a great first step toward improving mobility throughout the I-66 corridor. I look forward to working with the Commonwealth, Arlington County and the City of Falls Church on this critical project.”

Fairfax County government has embraced the HOT lanes concept. Arlington County government has not. It was resistance from Arlington that led the state government to abandon its original plan of bringing the I-95/395 HOT lanes north to the D.C. line.

Arlington County has been at least as resistant to proposals that would widen I-66 inside the Beltway or greatly expand its capacity to move cars.

Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette, one of the recipients of the Layne letter, said in statement that:

Arlington is passionate about giving people travel choices. I have just received this letter and have shared it with my Board colleagues and the County Manager. The letter references the I-66 Multimodal Study (inside the Beltway) as the basis for any future improvements.

It is fair to say that Arlington contributed heavily to that study and largely embraced it. With that in mind, we will consider this new effort and determine how best to constructively respond and engage as a community. We are all concerned about congestion along this vital corridor. It is important to note, however, that whatever changes are made, must enhance all multimodal options – as the I-66 Multimodal Study concluded.

Fisette said he does not interpret the letter from Layne to mean VDOT wants to expand I-66 inside the Beltway.

“The county board has not revisited our long standing opposition to widening I-66,” he said in a phone interview with Post reporter Patricia Sullivan. “The way I read this is it’s building on the study of multimodal options which Arlington and Fairfax counties have been heavily involved with …. This an opportunity for us to shape the result.”

Proposals for HOT lanes inside or outside the Beltway are subject to the environmental reviews required by the federal government.

Layne’s letter noted that the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the panel that makes transportation decisions in Virginia, is finalizing a Tier II Environmental Impact Statement to identify I-66 improvements outside the Beltway. A proposal for lanes inside the Beltway would be subject to a similar review, as Layne also noted.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which looks at the impact of transportation projects on local communities, said this in response to Layne’s letter:

While HOT lanes in the peak hour merit study along with HOV in both directions and transit, HOT lanes may still lead to too many cars trying to fight their way into D.C. or the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor. The focus should be on moving the most people at the peak hour, and transit offers the best opportunity to do that.

In addition, HOT lanes should not be used as a back door way to widen I-66, which is destructive of Arlington neighborhoods, and instead the conversion of existing lanes to peak hour HOT should be the HOT lanes option considered. Finally, if implemented, 100 percent of HOT lanes revenues after operating costs must be directed to transit in the corridor — both bus and Metrorail.

If HOT lanes became part of the existing I-66 configuration inside the Beltway, it would be the first time Virginia had extended the operating system to a highway that can be as narrow as two lanes in each direction.

Federal rules require that conversion of interstate lanes from high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) to high-occupancy toll (HOT) not degrade the facility. Carpoolers cannot be significantly slowed by the addition of solo drivers paying tolls.