Va. congressional delegates opposed to planned I-66 changes

WASHINGTON — Most commuters agree that something needs to be done to help ease the traffic burden on Interstate 66. Well, the fix is in for the traffic-troubled roadway — unbeknown to some.

Even though I-66 is part of the interstate system, the public had no say in the state’s plan to address the issue; members of congress were even left out of the loop, says Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly. He calls the situation deeply troubling.

“That was rather shocking. And I conveyed that directly to (Virginia) Transportation Secretary Aubrey Lane,” says Connolly (D-Va.).

He along, with three other Northern Virginia colleagues in Congress, sent a letter to Virginia’s transportation secretary expressing concern over the lack of public outreach regarding the state’s plan to add HOV-3 toll lanes to I-66, instead of HOV-2 lanes. The state’s plan also moves up the schedule for the toll lanes from 2020 to 2017.

“While we wholeheartedly agree that I-66 is in dire need of improvement, the far-reaching implications of your proposal on commuters and neighborhoods, the rapid timetable proposed, and the lack of public input into the planning process are deeply troubling,” says the letter from Connolly, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.).

McAuliffe’s office responded to the letter saying there has been ample opportunity for public feedback and that any improvements are in the early planning stages. The administration also says that state transportation staff have met with Connolly’s staff several times to discuss I-66.

WTOP reached out to Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne about the letter that was sent by the Northern Virginia congressional delegation. He responded via email saying, “We look forward to continue working with the congressional delegation, local communities and other stakeholders as we develop this much needed transportation project through the public engagement process over the coming months.”

Connolly says the lawmakers are especially concerned with having the HOV-3 toll lanes inside the beltway operational by 2017. “That doesn’t give people much time to adjust,” he says. And he is puzzled by the state’s decision to change from HOV-2 toll lanes to HOV-3 toll lanes.

“There are tens of thousands of commuters who count on HOV-2 and may not be able to make the threshold of HOV-3. Trying to find a third commuter everyday may be quite a burden,” he says. “Furthermore, we know that eastbound in morning rush hour that 35 percent of the people using I-66 HOV are cheating; westbound, that number grows to 50 percent. So if you want capacity on I-66, why wouldn’t [the state] first double-down on strict enforcement so we get the cheaters off the HOV lane?”

He says if these changes end up proving to be counterproductive. For example, if commuters can’t do HOV-3, they could end up on other routes like Rt. 29 and Rt. 50, further congesting already congested routes.

Connolly says he’s hoping the letter will galvanize the state to have a series of discussions with the members of congress who represent the I-66 corridor. “And more importantly, to significantly expand the public outreach so that the public is aware of what’s being proposed,” he says.

“We understand and appreciate the substantive concerns that the members of the delegation expressed about I-66 both on Tuesday during the governor’s meeting with the congressional delegation and in their subsequent letter. As Secretary Layne has repeatedly stated, this project is at its earliest stages of planning and there have been and will continue to be ample opportunities for all stakeholders to be heard,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy writes in an email to WTOP.

Coy says that the Virginia Department of Transportation has conducted 30 meetings with community groups regarding I-66 since last year.

“VDOT has had several meetings with the staff of Congressman Connolly on I-66, as well as a meeting last spring that the Congressman personally participated in,” Coy writes.

WTOP’s Ari Ashe contributed to this report.

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