Scores of Arlington residents attended a public forum last week held by state and federal organizations on the proposed widening of I-66.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Federal Highway Administration-sponsored forum, held at Washington-Lee High School, garnered a standing-room-only crowd full of concerned citizens.
It was designed to get input from the public on the plan, known as Idea 66, to widen westbound I-66 in three areas: from Washington Boulevard to the Dulles access road; from Fairfax Drive to Sycamore Street; and from Spout Run Parkway to Glebe Road.
A large number of those who attended the meeting were in opposition to the plan and resented the perception that widening the highway was a fait accompli.
"The highway will be widened regardless of what the residents think," said Tabitha Hendershot, a health researcher. She added that "[The Idea 66 plan] will not solve the traffic problem in the long term."
The prospect of widening I-66 is controversial because the U.S. Department of Transportation, in what came to be known as the Coleman Decision, promised in the late 1970s when the highway was being conceived that I-66 would never be expanded beyond its current four lanes.
Congressman Frank Wolf, who represents northwestern Fairfax and all of Loudoun County, is a prime backer of the Idea 66 plan. A representative from his office said that the Coleman Decision should be reversed because "we've got to do something to relieve traffic. [The plan] needs to move forward because there are national security concerns if Washington needs to be evacuated."
The representative also said that the plan wouldn't negatively affect Arlington residents because "the widening is within the existing footprint. No homes would be taken."
Almost everyone at the forum agreed that traffic on the highway is a major problem, regardless of where they stood on the Idea-66 plan.
"During congested periods, I-66 is currently what we call failing," said Kenneth Mobley, a planner with the Parsons Group, a consulting firm hired by VDOT to work on the I-66 project. "We give highways grades from A to F, F being the worst grade you can get," he said "and I-66 gets an F because the volumes far exceed the capacity."
Mobley said that for an ideal two-lane highway, "you should have about 1,800 cars per lane per hour," which translates into approximately 44,000 cars in both directions during the daily morning and evening rush hours. According to Mobley, during rush hours I-66 handles between 47,000 and 57,000 cars on its westbound lanes alone, more than double its capacity.
"Something must be done," said Rosemary Cora, a resident of the area near the highway. "There is a ton of pollution and traffic is bad both ways."
Mobley said that the Idea 66 projects would relieve congestion on the highway by increasing the average speed by approximately 4 miles per hour. He also said that the improvements would make the traffic flow more smoothly and, thus, decrease accidents on the road.
"If you have 40-mile-per-hour traffic heading into 10-mile-per-hour traffic, that can be a safety issue," Mobley said.
According to the Parsons Group’s findings, the first Idea 66 project, which will add a third lane on westbound I-66 from Sycamore Street to Fairfax Drive, will reduce the average travel time by four minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening.
Jeff Daily, a project manager at VDOT, said that the improvements would cost a total of $78.5 million of mostly federal money. The first improvement, from Washington Boulevard to the Dulles access road, would account for almost half of those funds.
Construction on the Idea 66 project could begin no earlier than 2009, depending on whether the design plans are finished on schedule, Daily said.
WHILE THE MEETING DREW a strong turnout, a sizable contingent opposed the plan. The Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation, a local group opposed to widening the highway, organized in the hall outside the meeting and handed out anti-Idea 66 buttons and flyers that asked for "A wiser, not wider, I-66."
Walter Tejada, Vice Chairman of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors, attended the forum and commented on it at Saturday's meeting of the County Board. "There were many people [at the forum] that were very upset and I was one of them," he said. "I thought that VDOT did not organize the meeting well. It was a presentation on what they were already going to do. [Prior] agreements need to be respected."
Many citizens who attended the meeting were also not persuaded by Idea 66’s presentation.
Dennis DeRiggi, a mathematician at a local non-profit organization, said that "The [Idea 66 project] will ease congestion on the highway but it is not the only way to do that and it is not the most painless way either." He was also concerned that the project will affect the bicycle lanes along the highway.
Ron Kinskey, who works at a consulting firm in the District, did not feel that his opinions were being heard. "When we try to ask specific questions," he said, "it is clear that they have a vested interest in building the highway. [This forum] is all for show. The highway will be built."
Anais Miodek, a computer consultant who lives in the area, was glad that she was given a chance to voice her opinions but is still opposed to the plan. "This won’t work in the long term," she said. "Adding more cars to I-66 won’t solve the problem. We need to expand Metro to give people more mass transit options."
Rosemary Cora disagreed with this idea and said that "telling people to take Metro instead of driving is impractical." Her husband, Victor Cora, echoed these sentiments.
"The premise of widening I-66 is long overdue," he said. Victor Cora acknowledged that the proposals will have an impact on the surrounding areas but he said that the real reason for the clamor is that "there is an emotional block with this issue that must be broken down before we can deal with it."