This month’s Richmond report contains no update from the General Assembly, which completed its work last month. Instead, I will turn my attention to another large and powerful state entity, one that arguably has an even greater impact on our day to day lives – the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). Many FCNP readers have probably been to one or more of the public meetings VDOT has hosted to share their plans to “transform” I-66 inside and outside the beltway.
Outside the beltway, the transformation plan calls for adding separated lanes for HOV and toll-paying traffic. I’ll call them HOT lanes for the purpose of this column. Inside the beltway, the plans call for the converting of the existing HOV-2 rush-hour lanes to lanes that will be HOV-3 or tolled full time, similar to the I-95 and I-495 Express Lanes. This means there will no longer be any free lanes on I-66 inside the beltway into the District of Columbia.
Much of the discussion so far has focused on proposals to widen the right of way outside the Beltway by taking homes in Dunn Loring and Falls Church. The good news is that progress has been made on this front. VDOT has obtained approval for design waivers and reduced storm water management requirements, which has greatly reduced the number of homes that will need to be sacrificed to make way for the new HOT lanes. In addition, two of the proposed ramps causing the most community disruption have been relocated. More details on these changes will be announced at upcoming VDOT community meetings.
While I am grateful to the engineers and others at VDOT for the work they have done to minimize the taking of homes in the corridor, I remain concerned with several other aspects of the current proposal. For instance, in addition to adding HOT lanes, the plan calls for converting existing HOV-2 lanes to HOV-3 on I-66 three years earlier than previously planned. This change could have any number of unintended consequences for commuters and neighborhoods that have yet to be addressed.
Although we have seen lots of information on various rights of way, possible ramp locations, and alternatives for managing storm water facilities, there has been little discussion of the impact the change to HOV-3 will have on the commuting patterns of Falls Church residents.
I share the concerns of our congressional delegation, who recently wrote a letter to the Virginia Secretary of Transportation asking that this issue be exposed to more public scrutiny and debated publicly. In their letter, our congressional delegation mentioned that VDOT itself notes that during peak hours 35% of eastbound cars and 50% of westbound cars are HOV violators. I agree with their assertion that we need to know why it is that simply enforcing the existing HOV restrictions wouldn’t significantly improve traffic flow inside the beltway.
The other recurring theme that I hear from constituents in their letters and in conversations at these public meetings is that no one has adequately explained the impact these plans will have on future transit options in the I-66 corridor, including Metro or light rail. By focusing everyone’s attention, on the worst case scenarios for property takings, and then putting all of their efforts at reducing the number of takings, VDOT would have us think we’ve all just dodged a huge bullet, and any possible objections to the plan have not been addressed.
Unfortunately, to address the concerns about takings, VDOT must narrow the right-of way, in ways that may not leave sufficient room in the median for future transit. Although we have been assured that all of the current proposals can be constructed in a way that will allow for future transit, it seems obvious that this would significantly increase the cost of any future project.
Residents shouldn’t be forced to choose between taking dozens of homes to make way for a wider right-of-way or preserving options for an affordable future expansion of transit in the corridor.
To learn more about this project, view the upcoming meetings calendar, or leave comments for VDOT, please visit www.Transform66.org.
Delegate Simon represents the 53rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He may be emailed at DelMSimon@house.virginia.gov