The Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) on Dec. 9 approved the McAuliffe administration’s proposal to allow single-occupant vehicles to use Interstate 66 inside the Beltway during rush hour, so long as they’re willing to pay for the privilege.
State Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, who chairs the board, called the unanimous vote a victory for both commuters who use I-66 and those who travel on surrounding roadways.
“The data is showing that all people will benefit, all people’s lives will be enhanced,” Layne said at the CTB meeting, held in Alexandria.
But critics kept up their drumbeat that unless I-66 eastbound is widened – sooner rather than later – the latest proposal is merely a stopgap that avoids the bigger questions.
“The issue isn’t tolling or transit, but how soon widening can be achieved,” said Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “This proposal kicks the well-documented need for widening down the road.”
Under the proposal OK’d by the state transportation panel, driving on I-66 eastbound during the morning rush and westbound during the evening rush will still be free, so long as there are two or more passengers in the vehicle (a number that eventually will rise to three). Those with one occupant, currently banned during rush hour, will be able to use the road in return for paying tolls whose amounts remain uncertain.
Some of the funds raised through the tolling will go to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which will parcel them out for improvements along the corridor.
The proposal has drawn pushback from advocates and lawmakers in the outer suburbs, who say their residents shouldn’t be forced to pay to use the road. But Layne countered that using excess capacity on I-66 will both raise funds and take drivers off surrounding arteries.
Saying that he understood the frustration of the plan’s opponents, and has taken some of their concerns into account, Layne said the Commonwealth Transportation Board and Virginia Department of Transportation do not have magic wands to solve all problems.
“Our role is to deal with the resources we have, and continue moving forward,” he said. “Our charge is to use [resources] as efficiently and as wisely as we can.”
Under the proposal, consideration of widening I-66’s eastbound side from the Dulles Toll Road to Ballston will not be considered until the 2020s, and only will go forward if certain thresholds are met.
Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth said those promoting widening as a panacea are stuck in a 1950s mindset.
“We should do our transportation-management smart,” Schwartz said. He noted that even if that portion of I-66 is widened, “there is no place for the cars to go” because Potomac River bridges and roadways in the District of Columbia can’t be widened to accommodate the increased traffic flow.
State officials say that once the project is up and running in 2017 – the last year of McAuliffe’s term – they will monitor what transpires and make adjustments as needed.
That’s a good idea, said Joung Lee of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He told CTB members that, based on past experience across the country, they should anticipate teething pains.
“You’re not going to find that sweet spot right away,” Lee said. “It will take some tweaks and some experimentation.”