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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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Roads


Why tolling I-66 is actually a good idea

Express toll lanes are coming to I-66. Some drivers accustomed to a free ride are upset at the idea, but tolls will help the highway run more smoothly and increase access for car drivers. Most importantly, they'll improve transit.


HOT lane on I-95. Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

High Occupancy Toll lanesHOT lanes, as they're called—allow single-driver cars to use HOV lanes in exchange for paying a toll. Carpools and buses drive for free, while cars with only one person (or sometimes two people) pay.

Virginia plans to convert the existing lanes of I-66 inside the Beltway to HOT lanes by 2017. The state also plans to widen I-66 outside the Beltway with new HOT lanes by 2021.

Congestion pricing keeps HOT lanes moving

The toll price on HOT lanes varies based on how many cars are on the road.

The point isn't so much to make money, but is rather to manage how many cars are using the lanes. When there's little traffic, officials want to encourage drivers to use the lanes, so the toll is low. But when traffic rises, officials want to encourage drivers to travel some other way, so the tolls rise accordingly.

In theory, officials raise the toll rate to whatever level is necessary to keep traffic moving smoothly.

HOT lanes can lead to more, better transit, but there's a big "if"

One of the biggest problems with buses is that they're often stuck in the traffic congestion from cars. HOT lanes provide a way out. Since HOT lanes are supposed to be free-flowing, and since buses can use HOT lanes, tolls create defacto busways, giving buses a way to move along the highway at speed, even if the normal un-tolled lanes are jammed.

But buses can only benefit from HOT lanes if buses are present, and if there are enough of them to be a realistic, convenient option. Unfortunately, that's a big "if."

Past Virginia HOT lane projects on I-95 and the Beltway haven't delivered the bus service planners originally promised. Officials built the HOT lanes, celebrated what they accomplished for cars, and largely forgot about buses.

But it doesn't have to happen that way. In San Diego, for example, California state law requires the I-15 HOT lanes project to use toll revenue to directly fund high frequency bus service. That's a good model, and it can work on I-66.

The plan for I-66

Both the I-66 projects, inside and outside the Beltway, have elaborate plans for more bus service. If those plans actually happen, catching a bus to western Fairfax or Prince William County might become a much more quick and convenient possibility, with frequent all-day buses instead of only a few at rush hour.


Proposed bus service improvements in the I-66/US-50/US-29 corridor. Image from Virginia.

But to ensure transit benefits actually materialize on I-66, leaders will need to lock in guaranteed transit funding as part of the deal. The days of trusting Richmond to deliver are over, after the failures on I-95 and I-495.

Part of the problem on I-95 and I-495 is that a private company helped build the toll lanes, and in exchange gets to keep toll revenue as profit. That means the private company has a vested interest in limiting transit, because everyone who takes a bus is not paying a toll.

But on I-66, at least inside the Beltway, VDOT's plan is to operate the HOT lanes itself, without using a private company. And without a private company trying to profit, officials can reinvest toll revenue straight into transit.

That's exactly what VDOT says they want to do. As long as they guarantee that promise with a binding legal contract, it's a good deal for transit. Much better than if VDOT went the traditional 20th Century route and simply widened I-66, with no thought to transit at all.

HOT lanes delay widening

To be sure, without a tolling plan, pressure to widen I-66 in Arlington would mount significantly.

Arlington has long opposed any widening, arguing that wider highways ultimately result in more drivers and more congestion. Under VDOT's current plan, widening won't be on the table until after 2025, after the bus improvements are in place.

But Fairfax County is already pressuring VDOT to widen sooner. VDOT's answer has been to try tolls and transit and see how they work, then widen later if it's still necessary.

Without the option of tolls and transit, that widening pressure would likely overwhelm decision makers.

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Roads


Virginia pressures Maryland to add Legion Bridge HOT lanes

Virginia transportation officials plan to recommend a new strategy to address travel between Maryland and Virginia: Pressure Maryland into extending Virginia's Beltway HOT lanes across the American Legion Bridge, all the way to I-270.


American Legion Bridge. Photo from Bing Maps.

Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue is today presenting the results of a Potomac River crossings study to Virginia's top transportation planning group, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB). The study assessed conditions at existing bridges and makes recommendations for future changes.

The main recommendation: Extend the Beltway HOT lanes 6.5 miles from their existing terminus north of Tysons Corner, over the American Legion Bridge, and up to the foot of the I-270 spur in Montgomery County.

The CTB will have until September to digest the findings and either adopt or not adopt Donohue's recommendation.

No matter what the CTB adopts, the ultimate decision to build or not build anything over the Legion Bridge will rest with Maryland. Maryland owns the bridge, and most of the length of the proposed HOT lanes extension. Virginia can apply pressure and offer a partnership, but can't force the project.

Why HOT lanes?

The HOT lanes proposal is a compromise. It's not the pure transit-only plan that smart growth advocates have pushed, but it's also not the outer beltway that highway advocates wanted.

HOT lanes give highway advocates a big road project, and throw transit advocates a bone with the potential for express buses (Montgomery County's BRT plan talks about transit over the Legion Bridge). Nobody gets exactly what they want, but nobody's worst nightmares happen either.


Potential cross-Potomac bus route. Image from WMATA.

Virginia's proposal to bring HOT lanes to I-66 is moving very rapidly. If Maryland decides to play along, this could move rapidly too.

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