Expanding I-66 inside the Beltway eventually will be necessary to meet Virginia’s goal of congestion relief in the corridor, says the commonwealth’s top transportation official.
“There is some traffic management we can do, but eventually there’s going to be expansion needed,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne in remarks to reporters Thursday at VDOT headquarters in Fairfax.
And by expansion, he essentially means adding a third lane eastbound between I-495 to Fairfax Drive. Adding a third lane on the other side isn’t practical, given constraints within the I-66 corridor.
When might it happen? It will depend on the effectiveness of initial steps designed to move an additional 40,000 people per day along the corridor. They will be a mix of congestion pricing with E-ZPass toll lanes and public transit, biking, and walking options paid for with toll revenues.
If “throughput” doesn’t adequately improve, the state would move toward adding the third eastbound lane.
“It’s both transportation and political realities that are driving this plan,” Layne said. “We agree we should exhaust every other opportunity that we can to move more people through before we [make] capacity changes.”
Data will drive any decision, he said.
“It will not be vague once the metrics are established,” Layne said.
Tolls first, another lane years later
Political leaders in jurisdictions inside the Beltway have long opposed expanding I-66 but reached an accord with VDOT on the possibility of building more lanes sometime before 2040. First, toll revenues will be used to pay for multi-modal options within the corridor, which includes Routes 29 and 50.
Starting in 2017 rush hour tolls will be charged during mornings and afternoons in both directions on I-66 inside the Beltway. HOV-2 carpoolers will ride free; the restriction will be tightened to HOV-3 in 2020.
Eastbound tolls during morning rush hour will cost as much as $9; westbound tolls will be $1. In the afternoon rush hour, westbound traffic will be charged tolls as high as $8, with eastbound motorists paying $2. Officials caution that the tolls will be dynamically priced based on traffic flow. Federal law requires that traffic maintain speeds of at least 45 miles per hour.
Drive-alone commuters currently are prohibited from using I-66 inside the Beltway during rush hour, but the Virginia Department of Transportation estimates more than a third of eastbound traffic during mornings and close to 50 percent of westbound traffic in the afternoons is single-occupant vehicles. Not all are HOV violators, however. Some are exempted hybrid vehicles or emergency responders.
Still, the plan to toll the existing lanes would eliminate the majority of the cheaters while also enticing some drive-alone commuters who now avoid I-66 inside the Beltway to pay the toll for a faster ride. Sharp disagreements remain, though, on the issue of adding lane capacity.
Charging high tolls without adding capacity is a form of congestion pricing designed to stop single-occupant vehicles from flooding downtown D.C. and other destinations, although Layne declined to use that term.
“It’s a dynamic pricing plan that reduces congestion,” he said. “The objective is to move more people, and the way to do that is increasing transit that is available.” More than one-fourth of eastbound vehicles trips on I-66 that begin east of Rt. 267 end in the District of Columbia, according to VDOT data.
“I would say a poll would show that the overwhelming percentage of people in Northern Virginia including Arlington favor widening I-66. It is such an obvious need. Traffic backs up on 66 all the time,” said Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group that lobbies for major, regional highway improvements.
Additional capacity is necessary for off-peak travel times, too, when tolls would not be charged, Chase said.
“If you just increase tolls during peak periods and add transit, you will totally ignore the congestion that occurs the rest of the day and on weekends,” he said. “If you are serious about reducing congestion on I-66 you have to add new lanes.” Chase noted his position would benefit high-capacity commuter buses in addition to cars.
Opposed to Chase’s view is Stewart Schwartz, the head of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which opposes major highway expansions in favor of transit and transit-oriented real estate development.
“What is ridiculous about the idea of widening I-66 is where do the cars go in Washington, D.C? Where do they go in the neighborhoods of Arlington and so forth? We have got to stop this process of building more [lanes] for more and more cars, and start focusing on moving more people,” he said.
Some congestion experts point to induced demand as the reason to avoid widening highways. In other words, build it and they congestion will come — eventually.
“The smartest solution is pricing,” said Todd Litman, the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia.
“It is foolish to add extra, free capacity. We know that for sure, because it won’t solve the problem that people are concerned about it. It won’t reduce traffic congestion because of the induced travel. There is latent demand,” said Litman, who noted each additional highway lane can accommodate only 2,000 cars per hour before degrading.
“On the one hand, there is a reluctance to expand roads,” Litman added. “On the other hand, motorists are extremely reluctant to pay anything. A lot of people are offended at the very idea that they should have to pay to use a road. Motorists are significantly subsidized and yet they still complain any time anyone wants to charge them more. They are particularly upset about the idea of congestion pricing. That is, any sort of pricing that is intended to change their behavior.”
The tolls drive-alone motorists pay for rush hour access to I-66 inside the Beltway will be used to increase mobility throughout the corridor, and officials said it will not take years for those improvements to be felt.
“We hope to put the multi-modal improvements in place on day one, if not sooner, and we think they will immediately start to make an impact,” said Nick Donohue, Virginia’s deputy secretary of transportation.
“You can expect to see new commuter buses, new carpool assistance, vanpools, and better access to the Metrorail stations,” he said.
Outside the Beltway
Secretary Layne’s remarks followed a major presentation by VDOT of its plans to transform I-66 outside the Beltway, the 25 miles from I-495 to Haymarket.
Construction is supposed to begin in 2017. The highway will be expanded to five lanes in each direction: three regular lanes and two express toll lanes with an HOV-3 exemption. The new lanes are scheduled to open in 2021.
First, however, VDOT must decide who will build it and under what financing mechanism. In December officials are expected to decide whether the project will be a full concession to a private-sector road builder, or publicly financed so the state may keep the toll revenues. In either case, Layne said there will be a public-private partnership.
Under current design plans, eleven homes would be condemned for the expanded right-of-way. Five are in Dunn Loring, where Deanna Heier said she and her neighbors are being penalized despite making the right decisions.
“We need to find a way that people can still live in Northern Virginia without running them over with highways. We picked these houses because they are near the Dunn Loring Metro. We picked it because it is near our work. But we are the ones who have to suffer for people who made a different decision.”
Heier’s home will not be displaced, but a ramp will “tower” over her house, she says, and the property surrounding the neighborhood’s school, Stenwood Elementary, will be impacted. Plus, there are four years of construction to look forward to.