Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced Wednesday morning that he has agreed to speed up the widening of Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway as a compromise with state legislators who were opposed to imposing tolls on those nine miles of highway before an expansion.
The deal is the latest significant compromise McAuliffe has reached with the Republican-controlled General Assembly, following an agreement on gun regulations announced in January, and it already is drawing strong reaction from supporters and opponents.
The I-66 deal shortcuts the McAuliffe administration’s plan to create high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes in 2017, study their performance in managing traffic, then decide whether the interstate should be widened. The governor’s original plan called for financing the any widening through the toll revenues. Under the deal announced Wednesday, the cost of the widening will be financed through the state budget. The widening will occur along four miles in the eastbound direction between the Dulles Connector and Ballston, the zone where traffic is heaviest. The budget revisions will allow for a cost up to about $140 million, state transportation officials said.
The deal anticipates that the General Assembly would kill legislation that would have blocked tolling before widening. That includes House Bill 1, sponsored by Del. Jim LeMunyon (R), whose district includes parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
What’s left in place: The HOT lanes still are scheduled to open inside the Beltway in the middle of 2017. Under an agreement with the state, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission will pick a set of programs designed to help I-66 commuters leave their cars behind and allocate some of the toll revenue to those programs. The programs would be in effect before the widening is completed, which should be by 2020. The HOV2 standard for carpooling will remain in effect till 2020. HOV2 drivers can ride free in the HOT lanes. Hybrid car drivers, who today have an exemption from the HOV2 rules and can drive solo in the carpool lanes, will have to pay a toll once the HOT lanes are in place or pick up a passenger for the free ride.
The key difference in the new plan is that the widening will occur years before it would have under the original version, and the widening will proceed without any study period to measure the impact the HOT lanes have on traffic. The new lane could open by the fall of 2019, Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue said.
Transportation officials said the deal also removes some of the doubts about whether the state’s plan to create HOT lanes between Haymarket and the Beltway could proceed. Transportation officials had warned that this bigger project could become impractical and too expensive if the project inside the Beltway were to be blocked through legislation.
“This is a comprehensive solution,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said of the governor’s deal with General Assembly leaders. “By 2020, the entire I-66 corridor from University Boulevard in Prince William to the Potomac River will be transformed and will work better for commuters.”
“Taken as a whole, these are probably the most extensive changes to 66 since its inception,” Layne said of the inside and outside the Beltway projects.
Layne, the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Department of Rail and Public Transportation have spent the past two years developing plans to expand the state’s network of high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes onto I-66. While any plan to toll drivers generates opposition, the state plan for I-66 inside the Beltway is unique, because drivers will start paying the tolls before any widening. The other projects on the Capital Beltway and I-95/395, and the one proposed for I-66 outside the Beltway, all involved an expansion of lanes.
Even at its most basic level, the HOT lanes concept is difficult for drivers to understand. With HOT lanes, there are no toll booths. Tolls are collected electronically, and drivers need to use either a regular E-ZPass or the E-ZPass Flex transponder, which has a special setting for drivers claiming a toll-free ride because they are carpooling. The toll rises or falls depending on the level of traffic, with a goal of maintaining a free flow.
The I-66 plan added several unique features. Today’s lanes inside the Beltway are restricted to high-occupancy vehicles (HOV) at rush hours. That means means that during the morning and afternoon travel peaks, the rush hour direction is open only to drivers with at least one passenger or to vehicles that have an exemption, most prominently the drivers of hybrid cars with the proper clean-fuel license plates. The HOT lanes plan opens the restricted lanes to solo drivers willing to pay the variable toll. It eliminates most exemptions, including the one for the hybrid drivers.
The original plan involved converting the HOV lanes to HOT lanes by setting up tolling gantries, without any new asphalt to widen what are now basically two through lanes in each direction. This would still be a boon to solo drivers, now banned from using the interstate during the HOV hours, as long as they were willing to pay the toll. But the HOT lanes plan still became an issue in the fall 2015 General Assembly elections, especially in the outer suburbs of Washington, where many long-distance commuters live, and several bills to ban tolling without widening were introduced for the start of the legislative session in January.
One measure, Senate Bill 234 sponsored by Sen. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax) was effectively killed for this session by a subcommittee action on Monday. Under the deal announced by McAuliffe, legislative leaders also will dispose of LeMunyon’s House Bill 1.
LeMunyon had this to say as part of the statement issues by the governor’s office:
My colleagues and I made the case for widening I-66 inside the Beltway. I’m glad there is now consensus on the need to do this as soon as possible. This is a step forward in our efforts to address the gridlock on I-66 within the limits of current budget resources. I look forward to taking additional steps to reduce congestion in this key corridor.
McAuliffe administration officials felt that legislative action was a real threat to the I-66 plan. In addition, Layne said, the widening will solve an issue for many commuters who say they experience congestion on their eastbound trips in the afternoon and evening, when the HOV rules are in effect only on the westbound side.
The deal announced Wednesday is between the governor and the General Assembly, rather than with any of the many other interested parties in Northern Virginia. The history of I-66 inside the Beltway is one long string of battles between Arlington County, where the highway is located, and long-distance commuters who want to remove any impediments to driving.
Post reporter Patricia Sullivan passed along this statement from Libby Garvey, chairman of the Arlington County Board, on behalf of the board:
We are disappointed with the news of the amended plan for I-66, which will immediately widen I-66. We respect that Governor McAuliffe and his administration worked hard to protect the earlier plan, which delayed the widening of I-66 until we had several years’ worth of experience with multimodal solutions [carpooling, commuter buses and other travel options]. We appreciate that — aside from the decision to widen immediately — many of the original elements remain intact:
- Toll revenue is dedicated to multimodal improvements;
- NVTC (our region’s transit agency) receives the toll revenue;
- Local governments retain the authority to spend these funds on local projects; and
- Any widening occurs within existing right-of-way.
As the new plan moves forward, Arlington will be vigilant, working to ensure that appropriate environmental analyses are completed efficiently and comprehensively. We will do all we can to mitigate harm from the widening, and we will explore possible improvements to accompany the widening. As always, Arlington will be working to promote improved regional transit. We need frequent, reliable, and comfortable transit systems along the east-west corridor that get people quickly to where they want to go.
The Fairfax County government represents many of those outside-the-Beltway commuters who want more space on I-66. Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, made this statement:
The governor’s announcement today will advance this critical project, which faced dangerous opposition from the General Assembly. This plan relieves congestion on I-66, maintains regional and local control over toll revenue, does not divert funding from other local and regional priorities, and is in line with Fairfax County’s position on widening and tolling. We thank Governor McAuliffe for keeping this project moving forward.
Three advocacy groups on land use and transportation — the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, combined on a statement that gave the deal a mixed review. This is a portion of their statement:
Our organizations have supported the governor’s package of transit, HOV, and tolls for I-66 inside the Beltway as a far more effective approach than widening. This package of solutions will move 40,000 more people through the corridor in the peak hours faster and more reliably, and it won the support of Fairfax, Arlington, Falls Church, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.
Therefore, we are deeply disappointed by legislators of both parties who have pressed to undo this effective demand-management and people-moving package in favor of a widen-first approach. In doing so, the legislators have failed to understand the settled science of induced traffic where widened roads in metropolitan areas quickly fill up again. They also failed to understand the benefits of funding transit through the toll revenues, and the effectiveness of the package in moving more people through the corridor during peak hours.
We’re grateful to the governor for fighting for the package of solutions he has championed for I-66 inside the Beltway. Although we are very disappointed that the widening is being accelerated before more effective solutions are given the opportunity to work, the agreement reflects a political compromise. That said, we urge the governor and local governments to accelerate the funding and implementation of transit and supportive ride-matching and transit marketing necessary to ensure we maximize the number of people using transit and carpooling before the widening takes effect in 2019.