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Options on I-66: Toll lanes, extending Metro discussed at meeting

Friday - 2/7/2014, 7:38am  ET

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VDOT shared some ideas about options for I-66 drivers. (WTOP File)

Are tolls the best option on I-66?

WTOP's Ari Ashe reports.

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VIENNA, Va. - At the first of two public meetings to update commuters on I-66, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) told drivers about options such as adding general-purpose lanes, adding toll lanes and transit options such as extending Metro, VRE or light rail.

Late last year, 19 companies responded to a VDOT request for information on how to ease congestion on I-66, and each touted the benefits that toll lanes would bring to the corridor from the Beltway out to Haymarket.

The 495 Express Lanes were the first major experiment in Northern Virginia into the toll-lanes concept, with more such lanes opening in early 2015 on I-95 between Stafford and Alexandria.

"Whether we have managed (toll) lanes has not been determined. We have 10 concepts (rail and road) and we will look at all of them. We realize not one concept in and of itself will be the answer. It has to be a combination of many modes of transportation," says Rene'e Hamilton, Deputy District Administrator for VDOT in Northern Virginia.

But she admitted that she thinks the 495 Express Lanes have been a success at offering drivers and bus riders a convenient and predictable option to avoid traffic for a fee.

"When the I-95 Express Lanes come onboard, we'll start to see a network of managed lane projects that connect together. Will I-66 complement that? We don't know at this time, but that will be figured into our study. As we look into each option, the connections between these interstates will be taken into consideration," Hamilton says.

Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity is a strong supporter of toll lanes to I-66.

"An express-lanes concept is absolutely what we need on I-66. It provides a corridor for express bus and other mass transit. It maintains free carpooling and it offers congestion relief," he says.

"It offers guaranteed speeds. If you don't want to pay the toll and get to work, you'll still get less-congested roads in the regular lanes too. So we're not forcing people to pay the toll. The average person gets that choice every day."

But drivers coming out to the public meeting weren't sold on the toll lanes as a solution.

"It puts people who cannot afford the lanes at a disadvantage," says Leigh Kennedy, who commutes from Fairfax to Falls Church. "People with higher-paying jobs get to avoid the traffic and other people don't. I think that's an unfair system."

Other drivers worry tolls on I-66 will constantly go up, like on the Dulles Toll Road or the Dulles Greenway.

"Let's face it -- once toll lanes are there, they can always finds ways to raise it, making the tolls higher and higher, and give whatever reason they want," says Judy Perich, citing the Dulles Toll Road drivers paying for Phase II of the Silver Line.

She's also worried drivers would avoid the toll lanes, similar to how drivers avoid the Dulles Greenway. Del. David Ramadan sued the owners of the Greenway to get the tolls lowered, but lost the first round of the fight on Wednesday. The decision over Greenway tolls will likely head to the Virginia Supreme Court later this year.

On I-66, most commuters seemed to agree that better mass transit options, such as extending Metro's Orange Line, would have a huge effect on traffic.

"If they made it really convenient for [commuters] to park out in Gainesville or Manassas, then people, rather than putting up with the traffic, they would get on public transportation," says Jim Lynch.

He suggests the crunch of people coming from Gainesville and Manassas to Vienna, Dunn Loring and East/West Falls Church could be eased if with Metro extends west. While the Silver Line will take away some of the volume from the Orange Line, riders who live along I-66 will likely stay put.

"When somebody says 'go into D.C.,' I cringe because of I-66 traffic. I think the Orange Line was meant to go out west. They have the roadway set up there. I would go [to D.C.] a lot more often if I had Metro as an option," says Perich.

"Either extension of Metro, some type of light-rail or bus rapid transit, ideally Metro would be preferably, but any improvements would help," says Kennedy.

Others think certain spot improvements would make huge improvements and save lots of money.

"The one critical bridge that needs to be replaced is the 123 overpass at I-66. It's the only 1960s-era still left in this region. If that were totally replaced, it would solve a critical problem we have with traffic in the morning and afternoons," says Doug Francis, of Vienna.

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