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Rail or Bus?

Highway plan raises controversy

A proposal to provide express toll lanes to Dulles Airport, could also affect I-66 though Arlington. The plan, put forward by a private business group, is causing havoc among transportation officials and those who support the state's plan to extend rail out to Dulles and beyond.

The plan, proposed by Virginia Mobility Associates LLC, calls for the construction of express eastbound and westbound toll lanes running from Route 28 near the airport through Fairfax County and into Arlington to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. The group claims that the project can be financed on tolls alone, without taxpayer money.

"This proposal should be looked at for what it really is, an attack on Dulles Rail," said Jason Rylander, president of the Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation, a non-profit citizens group opposed to widening I-66 in Arlington and supporting the Dulles rail project. "The group proposing this has never built a highway. The idea that this could be paid for with no public money is just facetious. It'll end up being paid for either through taxes or on the backs of the people who use I-66."

Yet Virginia Mobility Associates believes financing the project is feasible and that the proposed plan for Metrorail to Dulles fails to reduce congestion on the Interstate. The Metro plan, said Christopher Walker of Virginia Mobility, could even make getting to the airport worse.

Buses lines already run to the airport from Arlington and other corners of Virginia but Virginia Mobility's plan would offer new lanes for high occupancy vehicles, and a possible opportunity to expand bus services.

"The data from the final environmental study for extending Metrorail from the West Falls Church station to Wiehle Avenue via Tysons Corner shows that it does not alleviate traffic congestion in the Dulles corridor at all," he said. "It makes traffic on side roads worse and provides no money to alleviate that extra burden."

FIRST INCLUDED ON NATIONAL interstate maps in 1959, I-66 was hotly contested during its construction, drawing the attention of local residents who disapproved of its original eight-lane design through Arlington. The federal Department of Transportation, which eventually limited the roadway to only four lanes, two in each direction, through Arlington. The federal plan, outlined in a 1977 decision authored by then Secretary of Transportation William Coleman, also mandates that the design of I-66 incorporate other forms of transportation, that is rail.

"The I-66 corridor is unique, the first in the United States to combine a highway with infrastructure for Metro and bike paths," Rylander said. "It is important that it be maintained. We can achieve this through better land use in the western suburbs and a variety of other means."

VDOT is preparing to release the results of its own study on the I-66 question. The report is expected to be released in early February.

"The timing of this whole thing is somewhat suspect, I think, because we're so close to seeing the state's conclusions," he said.

To pay for the construction project, Virginia Mobility suggests a system that determines how much motorists will pay based on how congested the interstate is. For the privilege of circumventing heavy traffic, motorists would pay more to use the express lanes. When traffic is light, motorists would pay less.

"We do not need any public financing over what is in place," said Walker. "In fact, when the expansion is stabilized, full time tolls will come off the toll road forever. Tolling road users to subsidize another form of travel is a bad idea and a terrible precedent. Road users should pay for their costs, as should rail and bus riders. Metro needs to find alternative ways to fund its deficit."

BUT RYLANDER SAYS THE variable pricing plan would create even more pain for motorists.

"That means that if the road is congested at five o'clock in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, the price of the toll could change significantly," he said.

According to statistics from the Transportation Research Board, the four-lane section of I-66 carries 2,650 vehicles per hour during peak travel times, among the most congested highways in the United States.

Metro is already in the planning stages of its railway to Dulles Airport but the beginning of construction is still several years in the future. Its 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 the DOT, would be an initial $4 billion with a further $100 million in subsidies each year.

"In essence, we are proposing to build a congestion-free right of way for all forms of transit, bus, van and carpooling, at no cost to the public, with no public money," said Walker. "By increasing the capacity of the corridor by 50 percent, we are improving transportation options for everyone."

Virginia Mobility applied for a contract with VDOT to begin construction on the new lanes Jan. 5. It is currently awaiting a decision.

The debate on whether buses are superior to rail systems for public transportation was the subject of a 2003 report by the General Accounting Office. The report found that nationwide both have certain merits depending on where and how they are implemented.

"The Bus Rapid Transit systems generally had lower capital costs per milethan the Light Rail systems in the cities we reviewed, although neithersystem had a clear advantage in operating costs," the report states. "The performance characteristics of bus transit and light rail systems also

varied widely, with the largest bus system's ridership about equal to the largest light rail system's ridership. Finally, bus transit routes showed generally higher operating speeds than the light rail lines in these

cities."

Public perception, the report added, often plays a large role in which system is used with greater frequency.

"Transit officials repeatedly noted that buses have a poor public image," it states. As a result, transit planners are designing bus transit systems that offer improved service from standard bus service."

But economics, it continues, are often more important when it comes to which type of system to create.

"Transit officials believed that because light rail is permanent in a given corridor it could influence economic development over time," the report states. "Such long-term changes, they said, help justify the higher capital cost of light rail."