";} /*B6D1B1EE*/ ?>
Sun Gazette: Local legislators start mulling impact of I-66 inside-the-Beltway proposals Print


Created:  Wednesday, July 29, 2015 7:30AM


Even as their colleagues representing more distant suburbs mobilize in opposition, legislators from the local area say they will not rush to judgment on the McAuliffe administration's proposals for Interstate 66 inside the Beltway.

"I'm basically taking a wait-and-see approach," said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th), whose district includes a large chunk of Arlington surrounding the interstate highway. "I view this entire process as an opportunity to get the best possible outcome."

State leaders in March rolled out their latest anti-gridlock plan, proposing to turn the inside-the-Beltway portion of I-66 into a toll road in both directions during morning and evening rush hours. Those with three or more occupants would be able to ride for free.

The proposal would most impact reverse commuters (those headed east to west in the morning rush and west to east in the evening), who currently do not face restrictions in the use of I-66 at rush hour. Those using the more traditional commuting patterns currently must have two or more occupants – "HOV-2" – in the vehicle to use eastbound I-66 inside the Beltway in the morning and westbound I-66 in the evening, unless they have hybrid vehicles.

The McAuliffe administration's plan, which calls for the state government to build and operate the toll facilities, is designed to bring in cash that would fund a host of "multi-modal" improvements on highways and byways along the route. Lee Highway, Arlington Boulevard, North Glebe Road, Washington Boulevard and Metro's Orange Line all fall within that catchment area around I-66.

Under the proposal, there is talk of widening I-66, but not until 2025 at the earliest.

That timeline, coupled with the tolling provision, has caused a backlash from elected officials whose constituents use the roadway to get from the outer suburbs to the inner core, and back out again.

Del. Jim LeMunyon, a Republican whose 67th District straddles the Fairfax/Loudoun line, has called on the Virginia Department of Transportation to halt its planning. He complains that the public "is being kept in the dark" while the proposal moves forward.

He is not alone.

Del. David Ramadan, a Republican whose 87th District includes portions of Loudoun and Prince William counties, echoed LeMunyon's concerns, deriding the "infinite wisdom" of state transportation officials in starting the conversation.

Earlier in the summer, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors went on record opposing the toll proposal. Loudoun officials said some of their residents already pay upward of $8.70 each way ($5.20 for the Greenway and $3.50 for the Dulles Toll Road) at rush hour just to get as far east as the Beltway.

Adding another toll would result in "an unfair financial burden" on Loudoun residents, supervisors said in a formal resolution opposing the tolling option.

Caught in the middle of the debate are the likes of state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st), whose district runs from Arlington west to Loudoun County.

Favola acknowledges the current level of gridlock is not acceptable. "We need to come up with a better approach – one that encourages more carpooling and one that moves people in a sustainable way," she said.

Some leaders in Arlington and Fairfax counties have expressed generally positive views of the VDOT proposal, since it puts funding for a host of improvements within the I-66 catchment area ahead of widening the roadway. But leaders from outer suburbs scoff.

"Everyone but the congestion-deniers knows that I-66 needs more vehicle capacity inside the Beltway, especially at the eastbound intersection of the Dulles Connector Road," LeMunyon said.

LeMunyon predicts Fairfax and Arlington leaders will come to rue the day they supported the tolling idea, since it could chase traffic off I-66 and onto neighborhood streets.

Community forums on the proposal have attracted healthy crowds, but Favola said she is getting a relatively limited amount of feedback from constituents.

"I think folks realize that the process is still in the information-gathering phase," she said, but pointed to the following as a sampling of what she has received:

• "I take I-66 twice a day inside the Beltway to get to the Toll Road. I am already paying $140 a month to take the Toll Road, the addition of a toll on I-66 would significantly increase my transportation costs."

• "High toll fees are regressive – I urge you to support widening I-66 and oppose efforts to place tolls on this road."

• "Please hire more enforcement personnel to catch the scofflaws, rather than force current HOV-2 drivers onto alternate routes."

That last point of view is shared by Hope, who echoes the position (also expressed by members of the Northern Virginia congressional delegation) that VDOT "needs to start with better enforcement of HOV violators."

Transportation gridlock could play out as a major campaign theme during the 2015 General Assembly elections, but most of the Arlington delegation would seem to be immune from fallout – Favola and Hope have largely token opposition, while most other members of the Arlington delegation are unopposed.

Hope said he anticipates the state proposal, and public reaction to it, could be more significantly fleshed out by the time summer segues into autumn.

"In the coming weeks, my focus will be to evaluate VDOT's analysis and its impact on neighborhoods, listen to the community, and work hard to ensure our voices are heard," he said.