Boards, maps, photographs, aerials, videos and many staff members from the Virginia Department of Transportation were on hand at Oakton High School on Nov. 13 to furnish information for the almost 200 citizens who showed up for a design public hearing about “Outside the Beltway,” the mammoth $3.7-billion project which will transform Interstate 66.
The roadway will stretch 22.5 miles from the 495 Beltway to University Boulevard in Gainesville, and will be built to “improve multimodal mobility” (of all kinds: pedestrian, biking, HOV, bus and even cars) to move more people while simultaneously enhancing safety. At the meeting, Susan Shaw, VDOT’s Northern Virginia Megaprojects director, presented benefits of the enterprise and screened a seven-and-a- half-minute film which touted the project’s advantages.
She cautioned attendees that no public answers would be provided at the gathering since the focus was to listen to residents who signed up to speak.
However, staff answered questions posed by attendees in one-on-one sessions gathered at the boards before and after the meeting: “What is the solid green line?” — The bike trail. “We live beside 66. Is that a permanent or a temporary drainage easement?”
Newspaper accounts have described the conflicts between bicyclists and homeowners over the location of the new bike and pedestrian trail, whether it’s inside or outside the interstate’s noise walls.
Bikers, who often attend VDOT meetings in their biking gear, want their trail to be outside the noise barriers (to avoid pollution) while homeowners want the opposite (to preserve security), but Monday was a love fest with several homeowners expressing support for the bike trail outside the wall (as long as it is not in their back yards).
Due to bikers’ outcry (“We’ve received a lot of input,” Shaw said), engineers and staff returned to the drawing board where they’re still working to find better solutions and redesign the trail which has now shrunk from five to three miles inside the wall.
Twelve residents made public comments, including Julie Hirka who said VDOT has waffled on several important pieces of information, including supplying citizens with better knowledge of how the department will handle storm water mitigation, and provide explicit details on the noise barriers.
She urged planners to avoid the “monstrosity” of design found at the Springfield 495/95 interchange, and she had a petition signed by 400 defenders of student rights at Stenwood Elementary School which sits adjacent to 66.
Signers want to protect and strengthen pupils’ school experiences without interruption to the children by construction and its effects.
Kris Unger of the Friends of Accotink Creek Watershed compared the 66 project to a hurricane. Citizens won’t know what has hit them until it is too late: “I think a lot of people will be upset when trees start coming down.”
He appealed to residents to attend transportation meetings and to frequently contact elected officials to let them know voters are interested and aware of what’s happening. (Virginia General Assembly delegates Mark Keam and Marcus Simpson attended Monday.)
Right-of-way acquisition will begin soon. Express Mobility Partners which won the 50-year contract to “finance, design, build, operate and maintain the project” with VDOT, “has worked to minimize the right of way required,” according to a color brochure available at the meeting.
EMP has identified 10 residential relocations and 292 partial acquisitions to be taken, but no commercial properties.
Comments about the project’s design will be accepted if received by the deadline, Nov. 29. Email Transform66@VDOT.Virginia.gov to submit comments.
Completion of two express tolling lanes in each direction is scheduled for Dec. 2022. Other features are 4,000 new parking spaces, 18 miles of new bike and pedestrian trails, three general purpose lanes in each direction, and improved public transportation.
Governor Terry McAuliffe led the project’s groundbreaking on Monday in Centerville.