Signs of public opposition to the proposed westbound widening of Interstate 66 are mounting. Following the release of an inconclusive study by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), local residents at a Tuesday meeting of the Waycroft-Woodlawn Civic Association voted against the plan, with many questioning whether it would create a significant reduction in traffic.
"There were a lot of question about how much of an impact it would have," said Hans Baumann, the association's president.
The association meeting drew a large crowd that voted overwhelmingly against the proposal, according to Baumann, opposing it by almost a 90 percent majority.
Congestion on I-66 caused VDOT to begin studying the idea of widening it to create more lanes. State transportation officials commissioned the newly released study in 2004 amid congressional and state concerns about the regular back-log of cars on it during rush hour. But instead of issuing a conclusive analysis on the proposal, the document recommends more study be done on the idea before any plan is put into action. The study, however, does outline numerous problems the state must first address. The plan, according to Jason Rylander, spokesman for Arlingtonians for Common Sense Transportation, is far from the "done deal" Democratic candidate for delegate Richard Hobson described it as during a recent forum in the 45th District.
"This is far from a done deal," said Rylander. "The I-66 study is just one of a number of reports that would have to be completed."
BUT THE STUDY, Rylander added, shows that widening the Interstate would do little to ease the daily commute West. Its analysis of traffic patterns concludes widening would only create an estimated 4 percent reduction in traffic.
Looking at alternatives to widening, Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman said the study fails to give a full picture of the corridor's other transit options like HOV lanes, rail and bus travel.
"The study really leaves more questions than it answers," Zimmerman said. "All they did was look at the most grandiose transit options and then reject them. If you just improve HOV, for instance, you can move buses more efficiently. The study looks at each transit option on its own but it ignores the combined benefits."
Estimates for the cost of widening the highway, according to the study, run between $112 million and $123 million, costs that Rylander said are exorbitant when compared with the results the state could see if does nothing at all. Should the county follow the transportation plans already laid out for the corridor, he said, westbound traffic during peak hours is expected to drop by 41 percent. That figure, said Rylander, assumes the completion of Metrorail's long-awaited extension from Falls Church to Dulles Airport and changes to HOV lanes.
According to statistics from the Transportation Research Board, I-66 carries 2,650 vehicles per hour during peak travel times, making it one of the most congested highways in the United States. Metro is already in the planning stages of its railway to Dulles Airport, with the first phase of the project through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue expected to be completed by 2011. The full plan includes 15 station stops between Dulles and Washington, D.C., at an average speed of 35 miles per hour. The estimated cost of the rail, according to VDOT, would be an initial $4 billion, with a further $100 million in subsidies each year.
PLANS TO WIDEN the highway face several obstacles. The line of sight for drivers, according to the study, is too short on segments of the road, giving motorists less time to react to trouble. Shoulder space on the highway is also too little, creating a barrier that prevents emergency vehicles from being able to reach the scene of an accident. The road's right-of-ways are a further dilemma.
"They've admitted they don't know where the boundaries of the right of way are in the corridor," Rylander said.
But of the options put forth to the state, the study finds a recent proposal to install High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes to be among the most efficient. That plan is supported by a private group of investors asking the state for a contract to build the lanes. Under it, drivers would pay a variable fee based on the time of day and the number of cars on the road, to ride in a separate lane
"What the study shows is that the HOT lanes option within the existing lanes would perform the best for the least cost." said Rylander.