Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe campaigned in 2013 as a dealmaker who could work with Democrats and Republicans, and he says he’s delivering on that promise through another compromise with lawmakers — this time on the thorny transportation issue of widening Interstate 66.
When lawmakers arrived here at the state Capitol, they were already deadlocked with the Democratic governorabout the future I-66. McAuliffe wanted to toll first and potentially widen later. Lawmakers wanted to widen first and toll later. So the governor struck a deal: Start tolling and construction of new lanes at the same time.
“We have waited for 30 years for improvements on I-66 and now together in a bipartisan way we have an action plan that will commence immediately and this should all be completed by 2020,” says McAuliffe. “You know, having lived in Northern Virginia for 25 years and taking 66, it’s a parking lot. Let’s be clear. We needed to do something about it.”
The agreement calls for an environmental assessment this year to start widening eastbound I-66 from the Dulles Connector Road to Ballston. Construction will start in 2017, and the new lane will be open to traffic in 2019. Construction will take place in the existing right-of-way, which means no homes will need to be taken with eminent domain. In some places, the highway already cuts close to backyards.
“This bipartisan agreement will ease congestion and stimulate economic growth that will benefit the entire Commonwealth,” said Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-24). “I am proud of the way in which leaders of both parties and both branches of government were able to sit down and find a way forward on this important project.”
‘This is an accommodation to TransUrban’
Not everyone is along for the ride. Criticism of the plan started just as soon as the governor was announcing it at a press conference in Richmond. Del. Bob Marshall (R-13) and his wife appeared in the back of the room with a sign denouncing $17-a-day tolls on I-66. After the governor finished, Marshall explained to a gaggle of reporters that he believed the compromise would be a sweetheart deal for the Australian company that landed the contract to operate the I-495’s express lanes.
“This is an accommodation to TransUrban, which wants Lexus lane riders to be able to have a single person in the car to be able to drive from Haymarket or Manassas all the way to D.C,” says Marshall.
Leaders across Northern Virginia are divided on the deal. Arlington County Board Chairwoman Libby Garvey says she’s disappointed that the possibility of multimodal solutions were being abandoned in favor of widening the road for more cars. But Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova praised the deal, saying it’s in line with the county’s position on widening and tolling.
Stewart Schwartz at the Coalition for Smarter Growth says he’s disappointed.
“This guarantees the widening,” says Schwartz. “There’s no prior test to determine if it’s still necessary. It means we have to spend $122 million upfront that we would not have to necessarily spend before.”