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I-66 toll plan rolls forward

Map displays the types of HOT lanes signs that drivers will see as they approach I-66. (VDOT image)

In the summer, drivers on Interstate 66 will see crews preparing for the toll-gantry system along the lanes inside the Capital Beltway.

It won’t take long, compared with other major transportation projects. The tolling signs will be activated about a year later, in mid-2017. The image above gives drivers an idea about what they will see as they approach the entry points for I-66.

There’s still some planning left. This week, the Virginia Department of Transportation is holding public hearings on design details. The first was Monday night at the Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, the second is from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Eagle Rock Middle School in Ashburn, and the final is 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at VDOT’s Northern Virginia headquarters, 4975 Alliance Dr., in Fairfax.

I-66 issues not simple enough for politics

The Monday night hearing in the school cafeteria drew several hundred people, who studied the project’s display boards and listened to a presentation by Amanda Baxter, the project’s manager for VDOT. At the end of her talk, the floor was opened for public testimony. But out of the crowd of several hundred, only six wanted to talk. This was remarkable, given the long, controversial history of the interstate inside the Beltway. Arlingtonians live in the project’s corridor and will feel the full effect of it, both as residents and commuters.

People who have been following this project for the past year suggested that people may be holding their fire for VDOT’s upcoming sessions about a separate project that will widen the eastbound side of the highway for four miles between the Dulles Connector Road and Ballston. The widening was part of a compromise reached only last month between Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and the General Assembly, which was considering bills that would have blocked the high-occupancy toll-lanes project. The state needs to prepare an environmental assessment for the widening and hold hearings that are likely to draw close scrutiny in Arlington. Construction could start in early 2018 and be completed in early 2020.

The tolling signs that will appear on the approaches to I-66 will look familiar to travelers on the west side of the Beltway and on I-95 in Northern Virginia. But as Falls Church City Council member David Snyder pointed out during his testimony Monday, “I-66 inside the Beltway is a unique highway.” For much of the nine-mile route, it’s two lanes in each direction through highly developed suburbs leading into the District, where many drivers come to a halt for a traffic light at Constitution Avenue NW.

Snyder and many of the project’s planners are counting on new programs that will help drivers leave their cars behind. These new programs, including enhanced carpooling and commuter buses, will be financed with toll revenue. The project’s success depends on them, Snyder said.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission soon will select a first round of projects that can be ready to go when the high-occupancy toll lanes open.

The HOT lanes will replace today’s high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, which allow I-66 access at rush hours to two-person carpools and those with exemptions, such as drivers of certain hybrid cars.

Arlingtonians have mixed feelings about the project. Creating HOT lanes means that the lanes will be open at rush hours to solo drivers willing to pay the variable toll. Some fear that will greatly increase the traffic on I-66. Others fear the tolling will push today’s I-66 drivers onto parallel routes and neighborhood streets. VDOT traffic models do not show a significant effect on such routes, but even projects that are overall successes can have some unintended consequences that their planners need to revisit after the project opens.

The Tuesday night hearing at the Eagle Rock Middle School cafeteria, 42901 Waxpool Road, Ashburn, is likely to draw a crowd with different concerns. Many will focus on the impact of tolls on long-distance commuters, including those who today pay tolls to use the Greenway and the Dulles Toll Road before they reach I-66 inside the Beltway.