McAuliffe proposes widening stretch of I-66 inside the Beltway

It’s sort of like the day the earth stood still. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has taken on the third rail of Northern Virginia politics, proposing to widen a short stretch of I-66 inside the Beltway, sending the Kingdom of Arlington into a tailspin.

Rep. Don Beyer (D), whose district includes a large swath of Arlington, was quick to sound alarmed but cautious: “Arlington County had a longstanding agreement that I-66 would not be widened inside the Beltway.  Today’s announcement by Governor McAuliffe changes that understanding, and with no public input so far,” he said in a statement.

“My initial reaction is one of concern for Northern Virginians who have worked – many of them for decades – for an alternative approach to big highways.  But I continue to learn details of the proposal and to listen to constituents on all sides of this issue,” Beyer said.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova, whose constituents spend large parts of their days sitting on I-66 behind traffic bound for points inside Arlington, was more positive: ““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.”

The plan won an enthusiastic endorsement from Sully District Supervisor Kathy Smith. “For my constituents in western Fairfax, this is the most important transportation project that could take place to shorten commutes.  I’m very pleased to see this project go forward immediately,” she said.

“I-66 is long overdue for expansion inside the beltway and I am glad to see the Governor finally recognize this,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity of Springfield.  “Many of our legislators from outside the Beltway introduced bills to accelerate the Governor’s plan, and they deserve credit for today’s success.  I was pleased to join Supervisor Smith as one of only two voices in support of these legislative bills in Fairfax County.  Had they not been introduced, we wouldn’t be here today with I-66 finally getting the expansion it deserves.”

Four miles

McAuliffe’s plan would widen a four-mile stretch of I-66 from the Dulles Connector Road to Ballston, improving transit, and adding new options for single drivers.

The agreement will be reflected in the House amendments to Governor McAuliffe’s budget proposal after extensive negotiations between the Governor’s office, Delegate Jim LeMunyon and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones. Republicans in the House of Delegates have also agreed to table legislation that would have precluded an optional toll for single drivers on I-66 inside the beltway, a key revenue source for planned transit improvements.

“This agreement is a big win for Virginia’s economy and for the commuters who spend too much time on the most congested road in the most congested region in the country,” said GovernorMcAuliffe. “After a spirited political debate last fall, and a series of productive discussions after the General Assembly convened, we are proud to announce a compromise that will move our plan to transform I-66 inside and outside the beltway forward.”

“This multi-pronged strategy will increase options and reduce commute times through improved transit, smarter management of the lanes we already have and a new agreement for a wider roadway both inside and outside the beltway. I want to thank the bipartisan group of leaders who worked together to advance this important project so that we can unlock I-66, grow our economy and improve the quality of life of the commuters who use this road every day,” McAuliffe said.

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne added, “This plan will significantly improve the I-66 corridor by moving more people with fewer vehicles, giving solo drivers the option to stay on the road and pay a toll during the peak travel times and increasing carpools, buses and transit in the corridor.  We will also begin the process to widen the road at a key bottleneck inside the beltway that will add further capacity without requiring the loss of any existing homes or businesses.”

Senator Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) added, “I appreciate the bipartisan commitment to find a compromise that preserves the I-66 transformation, including the multimodal improvements​ such as commuter bus services and facilitating carpooling options​ that are so critical to reducing commuting times for the people of this region.”

The work to start widening of eastbound I-66 from the Dulles Connector Road to Ballston will commence this year with an environmental assessment.  Construction work will start in 2017 and the new lane will be open to traffic in 2019. This construction will take place within the existing right-of-way, will not take any homes and will be designed in a context sensitive manner.

Project description

·         Converts I-66 inside the beltway to Express Lanes during rush hours in the peak directions, widens I-66 eastbound from the Dulles Connector Road and improves transit service throughout the corridor.

·         If you carpool today (two or more people in a vehicle), you will continue to ride the lanes for free when dynamic tolling is scheduled to begin in 2017 during morning and evening rush-hours (5:30 am to 9:30 am eastbound and 3 pm to 7 pm westbound).  Solo drivers can ride the lanes in exchange for paying a variable toll based on the distance they travel. Average toll is expected to be $6 a trip.

·         In 2020, lanes will be free to vehicles with three or more people during rush-hours (carpoolers, vanpools and buses) and motorcycles per adopted regional policy.  All others will pay a variable toll.

·         The lanes will remain free to all traffic during off-peak periods.  There will be no tolling in the reverse commute.

·         All of the revenues raised from the tolls will be used by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission for improvements in the corridor such as new transit service and carpooling incentives.  Estimated toll revenue in 2018 is $18 million.

·         Toll revenues will finance the environmental work and construction to widen I-66 eastbound from the Dulles Connector Road to Ballston – eliminating the current bottleneck inside the beltway.

·         Estimated cost of construction is up to $140 million and will be funded with increased revenues from the recently passed FAST Act and improved state revenues. No revenues will be taken from the HB2 recommended projects released in January.

The expected benefits of the project include the following:

·         Reduce more than 26,000 person hours of delay a day in the future.

·         Move more than 40,000 additional people through the I-66 corridor a day in the future.

·         Provide reliable travel speeds of at least 45 mph during rush hours in the peak direction.

·         Provide increased travel choices for single-occupant drivers and better transit service.

Extensive studies performed over the past several administrations in Virginia show a combination of dynamic tolling and multi-modal improvements will provide a faster and more reliable trip on I-66 inside the beltway during peak travel times, providing a minimum reliable speed of at least 45 miles per hour.

 

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Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.