New elements of the coming eastbound widening and introduction of tolls both ways on Interstate 66 were spelled out by VDOT’s Amanda Baxter to the Falls Church City Council Monday night, and the biggest surprise was plans to build a bridge over Route 29 barely north of the City limits in Arlington to facilitate traffic on the W&OD Trail.
Among other reasons this came as a shocker Monday was the fact that the City’s own staff had worked arduously on plans for a similar bridge for more than a year, a plan that was angrily shot down by neighbors and environmentalists, alike.
The only difference is that the City’s plan diverted the trail to find a way to place a bridge inside the City limits at Gresham Place, a few blocks south of the VDOT’s proposal., where the W&OD trail currently crosses Route 29 (N. Washington inside the City) at the on-ramp to Exit 69 of I-66.
The City plan, part of its effort to come up with a so-called “Greenest Street” game plan for upgrading the three-mile portion of the W&OD Trail that comes through the City, actually proposed diverting the course of the trail to keep it in the City. But the plan’s potential disruption of the narrow forested Four Mile Run area on the east side of N. Washington caused the uproar, such that Principal Planner Paul Stoddard had revised the plan to keep the trail on its current route that leads just outside the City at Route 29 and to remove the bridge proposal.
But the newly-revealed VDOT plan appears to have no impact on areas for which environmentalists had concerns, and its cost will be incorporated into the overall cost of VDOT’s ambitious plans for I-66 overall, with no specific financial burden on F.C. citizens.
Falls Church Mayor David Tarter, saying VDOT’s W&OD Trail bridge plans were new to him Monday, was told by F.C. Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester that she had been privy to the plan before this.
Tarter asked VDOT’s Baxter if it would be possible, since the bridge would have the effect of being a visible “gateway” into the City of F.C., to have some signage to that effect. Baxter was cool to the idea, saying the bridge would be designed along the lines of an old rail trestle, looking not unlike the existing W&OD Trail bridge over W. Broad Street that was installed in the mid-1990s in the City.
The City of Falls Church will be impacted in other significant ways by the VDOT project, since its plans to add a lane to the eastbound route of I-66 will cover the area stretching from where the Dulles toll road merges into I-66 north of Exit 66 past Exit 69 to Exit 71, the Ballston exit in Arlington. The stretch between Exits 66 and 69 runs adjacent the City.
But it will hopefully relieve what everyone in these parts knows to be a major bottleneck in that stretch, often even during off-peak hours, and another component will be to ease the traffic coming off I-66 at Exit 69 toward Route 29, another trouble spot where the merging traffic currently often seeks to merge quickly across multiple lanes to make a right turn onto Route 29.
Currently under construction is the new tolling capacity which began with a groundbreaking in mid-August. Eight overhead electronic toll gantries are going in, along with 125 signs that will be added.
With the completion of that effort, rush hour tolling will begin on I-66 next summer. Eastbound, tolling on the full route of I-66 will run from 5:30 – 9:30 a.m. on weekdays and westbound from 3 p.m. – 7 p.m.
A number of F.C. Council members expressed concern Monday that the introduction of the tolls, especially if they are deemed price prohibitive, will drive traffic off the interstate into neighborhoods along the way, namely in Falls Church.
On the plus side, whereas there are HOV-2 restrictions on I-66 in the weekday mornings and evenings, with hefty fines for violators, there will no such restrictions once the toll system is operative. In other words, if going solo, you can drive at any time, as long as you’re willing to pay.
Councilman David Snyder, in face, posed the virtually rhetorical question of what VDOT would do if after the project is completed, it was found that it failed to achieve the desired results, at all. (There have been studies to show, for example, that Hot Lanes on I-495 have so far been ineffective in their objective of relieving congestion).
VDOT has moved to mitigate such concerns from impacted jurisdictions along the route of I-66 by giving back to the jurisdictions a portion of the proceeds from the tolls, including $500,000 for starters to the City of F.C. to help install bicycle ride sharing.
At any rate, none of this will happen immediately. While the tolls will begin being charged next summer, construction on the widening of I-66, including the new W&OD Trail bridge, will not commence until early 2018, with completion of the entire project not expected before late 2020.
Plenty of opportunities for public input remain, as well, including one gathering slated for the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School next Thursday, Dec. 8 at 6:30 p.m.