The plans developed for a 25-year upgrade of Interstate 66 inside the Beltway by the Virginia Department of Transportation were presented at a heavily-attended public meeting at the Henderson Middle School in Falls Church Tuesday night, and left the audience more than a little unsettled, based on the comments and grumblings from many there.
The plans include the introduction of tolls for all vehicles carrying less than three passengers during rush hours in the morning and the evening, and going both ways.
The presentation faced a lot of angry criticism from the public that spoke up Tuesday night, including from Falls Church Vice Mayor David Snyder, who, even though he welcomed the audience on behalf of the City, issued a statement that exemplified the sharp criticism that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and other planning officials were subjected to.
Snyder criticized the “lack of clarity and assurance” in the proposals, including “whether people will actually pay the tolls on avoid them and further clog already congested roads such as Route 7 and 29…The only long-term solutions lie in alternatives to more lanes to serve single occupancy vehicles.”
Others assailed what they called “a money grab” and “holding Falls Church and Fairfax hostage to tolls.” Whereas the comprehensive plan is not slated to be completed until 2040, the tolling will come in the first phase set to go by 2017, according to the planners Tuesday.
The overall purpose of the plan, officially called the “I-66 Multimodal Project,” is three-fold: to move more people, “enhance connectivity” between travel modes, and to provide new travel options.
Its benefits, according to VDOT and its partner in this project, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), are to “move more people and enhance connectivity in the I-66 corridor, provide congestion relief and new travel choices, manage demand and ensure congestion-free travel, provide a seamless connection to nearly 40 miles of express lanes in the region, create a ‘carpool culture’ on I-66 by providing free, faster, more reliable trips for HOV-3, van pools and buses, and provide support for multimodal improvements in the corridor or on surrounding roadways that benefit mobility on I-66.”
It is not related to another plan which calls for the widening of I-66 west of the Beltway, although they interface and of course are on the same highway.
The more specific data many citizens demanded Tuesday night will be forthcoming in the fall, insisted VDOT officials. The studies of various components of the plan for more precise numbers will be coming over the next months.
Snyder’s concern for the spill-over effect onto side roads, like Routes 7 and 29 that criss-cross the City of Falls Church, was expressed at a Falls Church City Council work session Monday night, and was the concern of a number of those who spoke Tuesday.
However, in comments e-mailed to the News-Press following Tuesday’s meeting, Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth wrote, “We are generally supportive of the VDOT proposal. It is a viable alternative to widening which would do more harm to homes, neighborhoods, parks, schools and the highly utilized commuter bike trail.”
He added that “peak hour congestion pricing in both directions will ensure the road works effectively and with HOV and expanded transit could carry far more people per hour,” and would “certainly help to address the current severe congestion in the ‘reverse commute’ direction.”
Pending more data, he added, the “diversion of traffic…might turn out to be no more than the diversions prompted by the current traffic congestion on I-66,” and “is counterbalanced by the fact that currently single occupancy vehicles are barred from I-66 for the peak hours and have been using parallel roads. With the option to pay for a free moving facility as compared to navigating local arterials with stoplights, the toll option could help local streets.”
Robert Puentes, a planner and former member of the Falls Church Planning Commission, wrote online at FCNP.com that “The VDOT plan is the right one to deal with the intractable problems in the I-66 corridor. There’s a long way to go to refine the proposal and the devil’s in the details but the general plan is a good one.”
In an anonymous response to Puentes on FCNP.com, a commenter complained that “reverse commuters face no restrictions now and in fact some have considered this in establishing their places or residence.”
He argued, “We need a comprehensive and robust mass transit solution to the traffic quagmire…We could focus on making Northern Virginia a showplace for light rail and bus networks designed so that people actually could use them instead of cars.”