The region’s Transportation Planning Board voted Wednesday to include the Virginia HOT lanes plan for I-66 in its long-range transportation plan after a debate almost as complicated as the HOT lanes concept itself.
The vote is significant because it places the high-occupancy toll lanes projects for both inside and outside the Capital Beltway into the Constrained Long Range Plan. Projects need to have that status if they may involve the use of federal funds and could have an effect — one way or another — on the region’s air quality.
The planning board is the federally designated agency that reviews the projects submitted by local governments in the D.C. region. By the time most projects reach the planning board, major wrinkles have been smoothed out. That wasn’t the case with the multi-billion-dollar HOT lanes plan, which covers about nine miles inside the Beltway and 25 miles outside.
The board’s Wednesday meeting opened, as it always does, with a public comment period. Many of those who spoke live in the Vienna and Dunn Loring neighborhoods near the Capital Beltway where the project will take 11 private properties and have an effect on the quality of life at many others. One resident urged everyone to think about the sound of truck engine brakes and the sight of headlights on bedroom windows at 3 a.m.
Business and civic leaders, who have been more supportive of the projects, urged the board to add them to the long-range plan. Advocates for expanding the transportation network, environmentalists and smart growth proponents also were generally in favor of the program, although they expressed reservations. One key point: Advocates for expanding the transportation network would like to see Interstate 66 widened inside the Beltway at the same time the state advances its plan to impose tolls. Environmentalists strongly support the parts of the plan that create alternatives to driving alone on Interstate 66.
The board members themselves represent different constituencies with starkly different views of the I-66 projects. Leaders from the outer suburbs such as Loudoun County Chairman Scott York strongly oppose the inside the Beltway tolling plan. Leaders from closer in areas that include Fairfax and Arlington counties tend to be more supportive of the Virginia Department of Transportation plan and the use of toll revenue to support alternatives to solo driving, such as carpooling and commuter buses.
But one of the issues for many of the board members is that the VDOT plan continues to evolve. Key example: The deal on how to spend the toll revenue on those car alternatives is not final.
Meanwhile, board members from outside Virginia said they were uncomfortable voting on plans that had no direct effect on their jurisdictions while, as far as they could tell, there was no strong consensus in Virginia.
Some board members supported a proposal to postpone a vote till next month. Well into overtime on a meeting that normally sticks to a rigid two-hour format, the board approved inclusion of the I-66 plans, with some dissent from both Maryland and Virginia members.
There’s one more public meeting tonight on the VDOT plan for outside the Beltway: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Piney Branch Elementary School, 8301 Linton Hall Rd., Bristow.
On Oct. 27, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, Virginia’s policy-making panel on transportation, is scheduled to take its own vote on VDOT’s “preferred alternative” for the outside the Beltway project.