It’s about putting all those new I-66 rush hour toll dollars to work making life better for Northern Virginians. While nobody likes tolls, especially the “dynamic tolls” that have ballooned toll charges during certain peak hours (although the average toll for a trip out of D.C. along I-66 is $12) benefits on the other side of the coin are being rolled out quickly.
For residents of the City of Falls Church and immediate environs, the benefits have included the restoration of the 3T Metro bus line connecting the downtown corridor in the City directly with the East and West Falls Church Metro stations (a service that will recommence in January after being scuttled a year ago), and now comes the project to widen a four-mile stretch of I-66 Eastbound.
It will add a lane in the run from the Dulles Connector Road (Route 267) to Exit 71 at Fairfax Drive in Arlington’s Ballston area, subsuming the entire stretch that runs the length of the adjacent City of Falls Church.
Even more important for City residents will be a direct access ramp to Metro parking at the I-66 interchange with Route 7 at the west end of the City and a new bridge carrying the W&OD Trail over Lee Highway (Rt. 29), a move that not only achieves the effort “to provide new travel choices, making trips more reliable and moving more people,” but also introduces a major safety benefit.
It’s something that anyone who knows what it’s like to pass between the City and Arlington on Route 29 (N. Washington St.) going either direction is aware of. The W&OD Trail stops right at the intersection, and for bikers and pedestrians crossing it, it is a perilous endeavor.
The bridge will rise up right over the top of that intersection, just to the east (Arlington side) of the Econo Lodge motel and La Cote d’Or restaurant right there, and should be completed within the next year.
Alert Falls Church citizens recall the effort over years, led then by the City’s current Senior Planning Director Paul Stoddard, to design improvements to the W&OD Trail that included a bridge over Rt. 29, and how that failed due to an array of neighborhood protests.
But the new bike bridge plans have been OK’d, and the work begun this week, without regard for such concerns, in the wider interest of safety and the expediting of alternative modes of transportation in the entire area.
A special groundbreaking ceremony for the I-66 Eastbound Widening Project was held at precisely the point where the new bridge will be going in last Thursday morning, and Falls Church Mayor David Tarter was the first speaker to welcome the three dozen dignitaries and others who assembled under a makeshift tent.
The featured speaker was Shannon Valentine, the Virginia Secretary of Transportation, and among those making (mercifully) brief remarks were Helen Cuervo, regional district administrator of VDOT, Mary Hynes of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, Tom Biesiadny of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation and Michael Nardolilli, chairman of the board of NOVA Parks which operates the W&OD Trail.
Valentine recalled how a “total horribleness index” had ranked I-66 the “worst damn highway in America,” and the challenge that its constraints have presented to fix it. Buoyed by Virginia’s recent rankings as the “best state to do business,” and “best state to raise a family,” the challenge has been engaged in recent years, and the work begun just this week reflects some of the achievements in this direction.
Hynes, as the former chair of the Arlington County board, noted that when I-66 went in 35 years ago, Arlington citizens were highly resistant to the project and have opposed any widening efforts that would further impinge on their county.
But a modest widening of the westbound lanes between Ballston and Exit 69 at the East Falls Church Metro, a major exit for entering Falls Church, occurred in a low-key manner, and remains underutilized by motorists who are unaware of its length and remain cramped into the lanes to its left.
Now, the same advantage will be provided for driving east on I-66 on an even longer stretch. Arlingtonians, Hynes announced, “have learned that widening I-66 is good for them.”
It is part of the effort, she stressed, to introduce multi-modal models for transportation throughout the region. In fact, the money from the tolls on I-66 is being used in conjunction with other funds to finance 25 different projects in this area.
The bridge and I-66 widening projects are expected to be completed by the end of 2020.