Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is indicating he may not oppose state legislators' efforts to block tolls on I-66, which are supposed to begin charging motorists on the inside-the-Beltway portion of the highway in 2017, if they send such legislation to his desk.
The governor will not veto bills designed to stop the state's plans to build toll lanes on I-66, unless he has the support of the Northern Virginia legislation, according to McAuliffe's top transportation official.
"There are a lot of bills in play that eliminate tolling on 66, and the governor says if those bills get through the legislature it is his intention at this point to sign them, unless there is significant support from the Northern Virginia delegation," said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne.
"Don't automatically assume he will veto them," Layne added. "We've been bipartisan working with the legislature on all these transportation [projects]. And if it is something they don't want, he has made clear, without support from Northern Virginia, he would sign those bills."
The governor's new position is taking opponents and supporters of I-66 toll lanes by surprise, given the enormous amount of time and money state officials have spent studying the project and reaching out for public support.
"My hope is this means the administration will put the inside-the-Beltway plans on hold and work with legislators and officials in Northern Virginia to come up with a more ambitious plan to solve the congestion problem on I-66 inside the Beltway," said Republican Del. Jim LeMunyon, who has proposed legislation barring the state from tolling the notoriously congested interstate highway.
In 2017 the Virginia Department of Transportation intends to start tolling I-66 inside the Beltway only during morning and afternoon rush hours, charging motorists a higher toll during the busiest times for access to what are currently HOV-2 restricted lanes. (The restriction will tighten to HOV-3 by the end of the decade.)
Toll revenues would pay for multimodal transportation improvements inside the corridor, which includes routes 29 and 50, and possibly the widening of the highway at a later date.
The outside-the-Beltway toll plans will take longer to be realized because they involve building extra lanes to widen I-66 from the Beltway to Haymarket (25 miles), giving motorists the option of using three non-tolled lanes or paying a toll to drive in two express lanes (where HOV-3 carpoolers would ride free). An estimated completion date is 2020.
The Northern Virginia delegation in Richmond is split over the tolling plans, and it's unclear whether any of the bills would make it to Governor McAuliffe's desk.
"I am very pleased the governor is listening to the citizens of Northern Virginia," said Republican Delegate Bob Marshall, who says the tolls almost entirely lack public support. During a five-month survey of the region last year, Marshall said he met only three people who support the construction of I-66 toll lanes.
"That's nothing. That's statistically insignificant," Marshall said.
According to an Associated Press report, Secretary Layne also "chided" Republican lawmakers seeking to stop the toll plans.
In testimony before the House appropriations committee, Layne reportedly said it was "intellectually dishonest" for critics to claim the I-66 project could be accomplished without toll lanes.