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I-66: Roads or Rails?

Local officials and residents object to a new proposal to widen Interstate 66 through Arlington.

A controversial proposal to widen Interstate 66 has drawn criticism from local officials and supporters of the Dulles Rail project but is gaining support from state and federal representatives.

A private business group, Virginia Mobility Associates LLC, has applied for a state contract to install High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes along a segment of the Interstate from Route 28 near Dulles airport through Fairfax County and into Arlington to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. The idea, according to Chris Walker, spokesman for Virginia Mobility, is to reduce traffic, but some in Arlington see the project as a threat to the long-awaited plan for a rail system connecting Metrorail's Orange Line to Dulles Airport.

"This is really a political tactic," said County Board member Chris Zimmerman. "It's a war that Chris Walker has waged against Dulles Rail for a long time."

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, 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, 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 DOT, would be an initial $4 billion, with a further $100 million in subsidies each year.

Walker said his company's plan would be cheaper, easier to build and faster than a railway.

"We're trying to provide a real choice for people on the highways," he said.

THE ROADWAY PROJECT, Walker said, could be completed at a cost of only $200 million, with construction lasting about 18 months. Rather than paying for the project with tax money, Walker and his company plan to fund it with money from motorists. Walker wants to institute a relative pricing structure that would determine tolls to use the HOT lanes, based on the number of cars on the road.

"You'd have full-time monitors that would look at the highway and the amount of traffic on it," he said. "They would determine what the toll is."

Virginia Mobility's proposal has attracted the attention of pro-rail advocates. Zimmerman said the group's estimates fail to account for hidden construction costs and other aspects.

"It's pure fantasy," he said. "If you really want to reduce traffic on I-66, what is one more lane going to do? Two trains could carry as many people as one lane of traffic could. And, If you have to do any property acquisition, that's really going to blow up your numbers more than $200 million."

Pointing out that Virginia Mobility has never been involved in any highway projects prior to its I-66 proposal, Zimmerman added that the group's motives are political.

"They are basically anti-tax activists," he said. "They don't want to see taxpayer money used to fund Metro."

But the plan has some powerful support from lawmakers, both in Richmond and in Washington. U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th) obtained federal funding and support to widen the Interstate as part of a comprehensive plan to improve transportation in the region.

"This would be very good for Arlington," Wolf said. "It would take a lot of cars off residential streets, and you could do it without taking any additional homes. It is tied into the whole mass transit plan for that area."

The plan, Wolf added, would also make the Interstate safer.

"I-66 is bumper to bumper every day, eastbound and westbound," he said. "In emergencies, there is currently no solid way for ambulances and crews to reach an accident, but the added lanes would allow them a way through."

On the state level, Sen. Ken Cucinelli (R-37th) stopped short of endorsing the project but said it could work.

"It's a much better way to do it, much better than paying for it with taxpayer money," Cucinelli said.

BUT VIRGINIA MOBILITY Associates has never built a highway and has never been involved in any transportation project, a fact that has caused some local officials to question the group's motives.

"We were put together just to do this one proposal," Walker said. "If it is successful and the politicians get the go-ahead, we may take it farther west to widen the Interstate near Centreville and Gainsville. Those corridors are suited to express toll lanes. When we get the primary go-ahead from the state, we'll assemble some of our key partners. There's a lot of interest in doing this."

The HOT lanes, Walker said, would allow the expansion of other ground transport services, like buses and cab companies. But Zimmerman contends the plan "wouldn't be cheap and wouldn't be quick" and that once the go-ahead for the project is given, construction will be far in the future, whereas engineering plans for the railway are already in motion.

The state's Department of Transportation 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," said Jason Rylander, president of the Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation, a nonprofit citizens group opposed to widening I-66 in Arlington and supporting the Dulles Rail project, which decried the Virginia Mobility plan in a Jan. 5 statement.

"This proposal should be looked at for what it really is, an attack on Dulles Rail," said Rylander. "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."