I-66 widening will happen soon whether it makes sense or not
Virginia Governor McAuliffe announced today that I-66 will become one lane wider eastbound inside the Beltway, from the Dulles Toll Road to Ballston. That changes previous plans to hold off on widening, to give transit and tolls a chance to ease congestion on their own.
Could only HOT lanes combined with transit and multimodal options have eased congestion on I-66? We'll never know. Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.
Until today, the plan was to allow single-occupancy vehicles to use I-66 in exchange for paying a toll, and to dedicate the toll revenue to transit and demand management. Then VDOT would study whether or not it was still necessary to widen the road.
However, Republican leaders in the Virginia General Assembly filed legislation to block that plan, and widen immediately instead.
The new compromise plan will immediately move forward with widening I-66 eastbound from the Dulles Toll Road to Fairfax Drive in Ballston. In exchange, Republican leaders will drop their opposition to the tolls and transit components.
One more compromise
McAullife's original tolling proposal had already been significantly compromised. His original plan called for tolls in both the peak and non-peak directions, and an immediate switch to HOV-3. Those proposals were axed months ago to appease Republican lawmakers outside the beltway.
What was theoretically finalized in late 2015 was converting the existing peak-direction HOV-2 lanes to HOT-2, an agreement to spend the majority of toll revenue on transit projects in the corridor, eliminating exemptions for hybrid cars, Dulles Airport traffic, and law-enforcement cars so that all single-driver cars had to pay the toll, and an agreement that Virginia would not widen I-66 without first studying the effects of the tolls and transit.
It's that final part, the agreement not to widen, that's now changing. The remainder of the 2015 deal, including tolling, dedicating most revenue to transit, and eliminating the various HOV exemptions, will continue.
Tolling is still expected to start in 2017, the same as the original timeline. It will take longer to build the new lane, but not much longer. The widening will likely be complete by late 2019, just prior to a planned sister project outside the beltway. The HOV-2 provisions will become HOV-3 both inside and outside the beltway in or around 2020.
The widening inside the beltway will cost $140 million.
This is a loss for Arlington, but there are silver linings
This new compromise is a blow to Arlington, which has long supported investments like transit, cycling, and transportation demand management as alternatives to widening I-66. It is also a blow to Virginia's move toward a more data-driven transportation decision-making process, as the lawmakers pushing for widening ignore data saying it's not necessary.
While Smart Growth advocates never like to see highways gets wider, there are some bright points in even this compromised proposal.
While induced demand causes most widened highways to fill back up with traffic quickly, I-66's tolls will adjust in price according to the level of congestion, which should fight that tendency. The widening will also require a thorough environmental review, giving the community a chance to discuss impacts to parks, trails, water quality, and more.
Crucial to the compromise is the fact that the majority of toll revenue will still be dedicated to transit and other multimodal improvements, and that HOV exemptions that currently make it easy for single-occupant cars to skirt the rules will be eliminated.
That said, serious concerns remain. The governor has stated that the $140 million is not being taken from any other project, but money doesn't just appear. Even if it hadn't been allocated to another project yet, it would have been eventually. What are we not getting because we're spending $140 million widening I-66?
McAuliffe's plan has been watered down several times already. Will Virginia stick to its guns now? Or will toll revenue eventually be stripped from transit? Will the planned move from HOT-2 to HOT-3 never materialize? Will tolls really follow the formula to rise with with traffic, or will political wrangling make tolls too cheap to be effective?
What do you think of the compromise? Is it better or worse than the status quo?
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