Some Virginia lawmakers, like their constituents, are unhappy with plans that put a bike and pedestrian trail alongside traffic lanes on busy Interstate 66.

The Virginia Department of Transportation proposal squeezes the walking path between the highway and the concrete wall that serves as a buffer between traffic noise and adjacent neighborhoods. A jersey barrier and fence would separate trail users and traffic.

“We believe this is an insufficient design,” says a letter addressed to Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne and signed by 18 members of the Virginia General Assembly. “I-66 Trail users will be closely sandwiched between a sound wall and traffic exposing them to concentrated quantities of car exhaust, noise pollution and road debris.”

The letter echoes concerns raised by biking groups and aficionados who welcome the addition of the multiuse path but object to its design, saying that it puts users too close to cars whizzing by on the interstate.

The trail is part of the planned $2.3 billion expansion of Interstate 66 outside the Capital Beltway, a project that will add HOT lanes to the corridor. The expansion, from University Boulevard in Gainesville to the Capital Beltway, will include three general-purpose lanes in each direction, new and expanded transit service, including additional park-and-ride lots, and median space reserved for future rail service.

The current plan puts about five of the 22.5 miles of proposed trail on the highway side of the wall. They are on the Fairfax side of the project, which covers about 16.5 miles of trail parallel to I-66.  In Prince William, state officials say, another six miles of trail is expected to be coordinated by the county.

Susan Shaw, director of Mega Projects for VDOT, said the department is working with the project’s private partners to find other locations within those five miles of trail where the facility could be moved to the other side of the wall. A modified design would be released for public review this fall, she said.

State transportation officials say the expansion will help reduce congestion in the I-66 corridor, which experiences eight to 10 hours of gridlock daily, including weekends, and carries roughly 200,000 vehicles on an average day. And the trail would provide another option for residents to get around.

Officials say they understand the design isn’t ideal, but they cite neighbor opposition to having the trail on their side of the wall. The option they settled on addresses the neighbors’ concerns and the corridor’s right-of-way constraints.

In the letter, the lawmakers who are mostly from Northern Virginia, said they are aware of the neighbors’ hesitation but said the experience with other trails has had positive impacts on communities.

“Experience has repeatedly proven that trails are assets to their surrounding communities,” the letter says.

It continues: “While change may be difficult and the potential disruption caused to homeowners is an unfortunate consequence of any road widening, the experience with the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, which opened in 1974, has shown the presence of the trail facility enhanced property values in proximity to the path and did not cause significant negative externalities.”

Here is the letter:

The lawmakers also ask VDOT to ensure the trail continues on the Prince William side of the project.

“Prince William County deserves high-quality cycling facilities, and extending the shared used path to Gainesville would facilitate bike commuting, especially to access I-66 transit and ridesharing lots, and could even reduce parking overcrowding at the Vienna Metro,” says the letter spearheaded by Sen. Scott A. Surovell, who represents portions of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties.

Shaw said the state looks to Prince William to develop the trail and keeping it adjacent to the highway will require taking parkland that was not part of the project’s environmental review.

More than a dozen environmental, smart growth and biking groups support the lawmaker’s position, the letter says, citing the Virginia Sierra Club, the Virginia Bicycling Federation and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, among others.

In the letter, the officials urge more discussion with residents and other people interested in the project.  It concludes:

If Virginia, especially in its most congested areas, is going to move to a true multimodal transportation system that encourages commuting by all modes of transit, it is imperative that VDOT provide non-vehicle users with a high-quality transportation experience so the facility’s use will be maximized. The I-66 Trail’s current design does not do that.
Please redesign this project to place the shared use path on the outside of the sound walls, ten-feet-wide with two-foot-shoulders on either side, or 14-feet-wide, and extend the shared use path the entire length of the widening project.