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Improving Virginia's I-66 Inside the Beltway

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A controversy is raging in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC over Virginia DOT’s proposal to convert I-66 between the Capital Beltway (I-495) and the District of Columbia into a set of HOT lanes. Currently, that four-lane stretch of I-66 operates as HOV-only during morning and afternoon peak period, with only carpools of two or more people allowed to use it. That was a compromise reached decades ago when this last portion of I-66 finally got built, after strenuous political opposition within Arlington County. Part of VDOT’s current proposal calls for—eventually—adding a third lane inbound but leaving just two lanes outbound, and there seems to be grudging acceptance of that by Arlington County politicos.

There are several serious problems with VDOT’s proposal. First of all, it is inconsistent with the emerging network of express toll lanes in the region: already in operation on the I-495 Beltway and on I-95 south of the Beltway, and in prospect for I-66 outside the Beltway and I-395 inside the Beltway. A network should have consistent policies on key features such as occupancy requirements for free passage. The express lanes on I-495, I-95, and planned for I-66 (outside the Beltway) are all HOT-3; it makes no sense for that requirement to change to HOT-2 once the customer crosses a line on the map. Secondly, the other parts of the network offer motorists a choice between a fast and reliable trip for a price and a slower, congested trip for free. No such choice would be offered under VDOT’s proposal for I-66 inside the Beltway.

In addition, the projected peak-period tolls on this project are between $7 and $9 one-way—a clear indication that there is not enough capacity in that corridor. VDOT’s plan calls for adding only an inbound lane “sometime before 2040.” That’s not good enough. I discussed this question with a former top official at VDOT and was told unequivocally that “There is room for three lanes in each direction without taking any [land].” In a few cases this would mean doing without a shoulder for 200-300 feet in order not to have to replace an existing overpass. But there are existing expressways elsewhere—and nearly all tunnels—without shoulders.

As for motorist choice, rather than charging a sky-high price for all lanes, if the corridor were widened to three lanes each way it could offer two-tier pricing, as already exists on PR-22 in Puerto Rico and will soon exist on as many as half a dozen toll roads in Florida. The new lane each way would offer dynamic-priced premium service, while the regular lanes would charge a more modest flat-rate toll during peak periods only. The premium lanes would also be the corridors for express bus/BRT service, which would be faster and more reliable thanks to the dynamic pricing aimed at maintaining Level of Service C (uncongested) traffic flow throughout peak periods.

The Washington Post reported (Oct. 1st) that Virginia House Speaker William Howell and other leading Republicans have criticized the current VDOT plan as “outrageously expensive” for commuters, and called on the governor and VDOT to produce a revised plan that includes adding lanes to this portion of I-66. The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance supports lane additions but opposes tolling. But toll revenue is needed to pay for the lane additions, which will also provide the “virtually exclusive” guideway for future BRT service in the corridor. The solution is not pricing or lane-additions: it is both.

(This article first ran in the October issue of Surface Transportation Innovations.)
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