When Route 66 was built, it was designed to be two lanes in each direction. At the time, the highway cut many existing neighborhoods in half, but a host of promises were made to the people of Arlington and Fairfax County.
"There was a whole set of conditions," said Arlington County Board Vice-Chair Chris Zimmerman (D).
Engineering went along with those conditions. At the time, William Coleman, U.S. Sec. of Transportation under President Gerald Ford (R), had the highway tunnel under Rosslyn specifically designed so that they would be difficult to widen, Zimmerman said.
Now, each of the three major candidates for Governor favors widening the road inside the Beltway.
Times have changed, the candidates say, and the current traffic volumes, which the Virginia Department of Transportation estimates to be nearly 150,000 vehicles per day, justify the need for more lanes. Each of the candidates says that another lane can be added within the existing roadway. Essentially, the shoulder would be removed to make way for another travel lane.
Arlington's County Board is opposed to any widening, Zimmerman said. "We have a standing position on this," he said. To date, no one has done a comprehensive study of the best ways to give some relief to drivers on I-66. "Nobody's really done a true, full study," Zimmerman said.
State lawmakers agree. "There is no substantial information that tells you widening I-66 over the long-term will reduce congestion. All it will do is entice more cars into a facility that is limited. It's a bankrupt notion," said Del. Al Eisenberg (D-47) at a Sept. 21 candidates forum.
But candidates for governor see limits on lanes for I-66 as a traffic problem.
"I think it fairly self-evident it causes significant congestion," said Tim Murtaugh, spokesperson for Jerry Kilgore (R). In gubernatorial debates and on the campaign trail, Kilgore has called for adding another lane to I-66 in each direction.
Kilgore would pay for the project by earmarking federal highway funds to the project. Murtaugh estimates that $60 million per year for each of the governor's four-year term should be enough.
"This is a highway construction project that has been talked about for so long — its time to get it done," Murtaugh said.
State Sen. Russ Potts (R-Winchester) concurred. Potts wants to widen I-66 both inside and outside the Beltway to three lanes. Potts proposes a broad-based financing package including tolls, and increases to the sales, tobacco, recordation tax and income tax on individuals who make more than $100,000 per year. Potts' package could generate $3 billion a year for state highway funding, he says.
Potts would not turn over tax increases to a referendum, as Kilgore has proposed. "I totally shoot down referendums which are spelled C-O-W-A-R-D."
Zimmerman said that widening eastbound I-66 would be generally ineffective. He points to the tunnels at Rosslyn that would be prohibitively expensive to widen. "Do you get enough benefit to merit the expenditure of funds?" Zimmerman asked. Even if those were somehow expanded, motorists would still hit a bottleneck at the bridges into Washington. "It's going to be a funnel at some point," he said.
Democratic candidate Tim Kaine proposes continuing with the effort to widen westbound I-66 by a lane within the existing right-of-way, said spokesperson Delacey Skinner. Kaine would also be open to opening a similar discussion on widening the eastbound lanes, Skinner said. Skinner said that Kaine would ensure that the taxes paid toward transportation are not used to fund other government functions.
"It's making sure that we're doing what we have said with the people's money," Skinner said.
The long-term solution, Zimmerman said, isn't more pavement, but more train tracks. Building a new rail line to Tyson’s Corner will do more to relieve traffic than additional lane miles.
Widening roads, Zimmerman said, puts the emphasis on moving cars through an area. But rail lines can move hundreds more people along a corridor, and do it faster.
"The emphasis has to be on moving people," he said.
Connection Staff Reporter Seth Rosen contributed to this story.