The blue line that thickens from west to east follows the build up of morning traffic on I-66 until it reaches the Beltway. The three green lines show where I-66 drivers go when they reach the Beltway. (VDOT map)

The Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board voted unanimously Tuesday to advance the state’s plan to build HOT lanes on Interstate 66 outside the Capital Beltway, after spending much more time reviewing the other toll plan for the stretch inside the Beltway.

In this election season for the Virginia General Assembly, it’s the inside plan that is generating the most political heat. The state’s plan is to toll the interior 10 miles without building extra lanes, the first time in the D.C. region that tolls would be added without also adding asphalt.

There’s plenty of controversy about the outside the Beltway portion, too, but at the moment, it’s muted compared to the concerns expressed by local officials and commuters.

Nonetheless, several people made the journey from Northern Virginia to the board’s meeting in Virginia Beach to testify about the Virginia Department of Transportation’s outside-the-Beltway plan.

“VDOT should go back to the drawing board,” said Greg Scott, leader of the 66 Alliance, a Northern Virginia group opposed to many aspects of the HOT lanes plan. Scott, who urged the board to reject VDOT’s “preferred alternative,” objected to “regressive tolls,” the plan to use tolling in both directions (the main rush-hour direction as well as the reverse-commute direction), to end the HOV exemption for people who bought hybrid cars, forcing them to pay tolls unless they carpool, and the plan to raise the carpool standard from two persons to three per vehicle when the HOT lanes open. (Drivers who meet the high-occupancy vehicle standard can travel free in Virginia HOT lanes.)

Opponents urged the board to delay its vote until next month, when the Commonwealth Transportation Board is scheduled to meet in Northern Virginia.

While it’s certainly understandable that opponents would want to delay the vote — perhaps forever — it’s difficult to see what advantage the public would have gained via the change in location.

Renee Hamilton, VDOT’s deputy district administrator in Northern Virginia, described a lengthy process of public discussion that has involved more than 200 meetings. These sessions have included formal public hearings as well as community meetings with VDOT staffers. Many more public sessions on both the inside and outside portions of the plan will follow before work begins. VDOT officials hope to start construction of the outside the Beltway project in 2017 and open by 2021. The inside the Beltway project, a much simpler effort involving the setup of a tolling system, could be ready by summer 2017.

While VDOT has modified parts of the “preferred alternative” to deal with community concerns about the impact, the basics have remained pretty much the same all year. This is what the board voted to support:

  • Three regular lanes and two express lanes in each direction, with a median for potential future transit in each direction.
  • Dedicated access points for the HOT lanes along the 25 miles outside the Beltway.
  • New and expanded park and ride facilities with access to the HOT lanes.
  • High-frequency bus service along the corridor.
  • Ramp-to-ramp connections between interchanges and interchange improvements at notorious bottlenecks.
  • Bikeway, trail and sidewalk improvements all along the corridor.
  • Safety and traffic-flow improvements at interchanges throughout the corridor.

State Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said the state expects to decide on a method for financing and operating the HOT lanes by the end of December.