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On I-66 Inside The Beltway, Tolls First, More Lanes Later (Maybe)

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Drivers on portions of I-66 will soon have to pay to use the roadway.
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Drivers on portions of I-66 will soon have to pay to use the roadway.

Virginia transportation officials announced the state will move ahead with plans to add tolls to I-66 inside the Beltway starting in 2017 with the consent of Fairfax and Arlington counties, leaving open the possibility of widening the notoriously congested highway if the dynamically priced toll/HOV-3 lanes do not ease backups that routinely stretch as long as five miles.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne made clear toll revenues would come back to the state to pay for multimodal improvements — transit, bike, pedestrian — inside the I-66 corridor, which includes Routes 29 and 50.

“There are increasingly more non-HOV users during HOV-restricted periods on this stretch of 66,” said Layne during a presentation at VDOT headquarters in Fairfax County.

“There are connectivity challenges for those who rely on multiple modes of travel to get to their destinations. There are bottlenecks, limitations, and gaps on key bike and pedestrian trails, and there are crowded conditions on Metro’s Orange and Silver Lines.”

Unlike the concessions with private sector road builders who constructed the I-495 and I-95 Express Lanes, toll revenue on I-66 inside the Beltway will not go into the pockets of company shareholders. Instead, motorists’ tolls would pay for improvements designed to increase the throughput of people, not vehicles, in the corridor.

“We are talking about less than ten miles, and we are talking about things that are not nearly as complicated as the other projects,” said Layne, who estimated the cost of constructing and operating the inside-the-Beltway toll lanes would be in the tens of millions. The Express Lanes projects on 495 and 95 ran into the billions.

Major changes coming

Today drive-alone commuters traveling east on I-66 during morning rush hour make a choice when they reach the Beltway: go north or south on I-495, or continue on I-66 and break the law. From 6:30 to 9 a.m. only HOV-2 carpoolers can use the highway inside the Beltway toward Washington. The same goes for westbound traffic out of the capital from 4 to 6:30 p.m.

Under VDOT’s tolling plan, the carpool minimum would increase to HOV-3, and rush hour motorists with fewer passengers would be able to use the lanes by paying an E-ZPass toll (no toll booths).

The toll will be dynamically priced — similar to the pricing system on the I-495 and I-95 Express Lanes — to manage congestion; the more traffic volume, the higher the cost. The new lanes would remain free to all traffic during off-peak travel times.

While the international road builder Transurban was hired to construct and operate the I-495 and I-95 Express Lanes (the company collects the toll revenue for 75 years), VDOT will control the new lanes on I-66 inside the Beltway, using toll dollars to create options for commuters in the corridor and surrounding roadways.

What is multimodal?

Exactly which multimodal options should be pursued will be worked out in consultation with Arlington and Fairfax, said Nick Donohue, Virginia’s deputy transportation secretary.

“The state itself does not always know what the best improvement is, particularly at the multimodal level. We manage a roadway system at the state level,” he said.

VDOT will continue to review recommendations from earlier studies, including a 2009 report by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The agency also will look at increasing local, commuter, and regional bus service in the corridor (Routes 29 and 50 included), Metrorail station improvements at Ballston and East Falls Church stations, and whether toll revenues could pay for additional 8-car Orange and Silver Line trains. Sixty bicycle and pedestrian improvements are under consideration.

Officials are emphasizing the state’s goal is not to increase the number of cars flowing into downtown Washington each morning.

“We have a similar goal of moving people, not just vehicles, through the corridor, and the definition of the corridor being 29, 50, and 66, all based on a multimodal study in 2012,” said Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette. “These changes as studied in 2012 suggest that it can be done.”

Tolls first, additional capacity later

House Delegate Jim LeMunyon (R-Loudoun/Fairfax) raised an objection to tolling motorists before adding additional lanes to I-66 inside the Beltway, a departure from the approach on the aforementioned Express Lanes that kept free lanes running parallel to the new E-ZPass only facilities.

“There is no way to keep that toll price at a market rate if you don’t have a choice. That could go to $10 or $15. You really don’t know where it will go until people start paying it. Will it be just those who can afford it driving I-66? What about the guy who is making minimum wage who wants to go to work,” Del. LeMunyon said.

Virginia officials said if future studies determine the new HOV-3/toll lanes are not adequately easing congestion after an undetermined period of time, the state will work with Arlington and Fairfax on a plan to widen the highway inside the Beltway. Sec. Layne said the precise metrics that will be used to measure the project’s effectiveness will be determined at a later date.

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