The I-66 deal is more like an armistice than a peace treaty for commuters

It’s a big deal, but not a done deal. For commuters, the compromise between Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and the General Assembly on the future of one of America’s most controversial highways will be meaningful only when things start to happen on I-66.

Feuding over I-66 was inevitable. People have been battling for decades over whether it should exist, who should use it and how big it should be. And it isn’t going to stop just because some people in Richmond shake hands.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.

Once the governor made his announcement Wednesday morning, interested parties inundated us with their takes on the deal. Proponents and opponents of tolling and widening were unavoidable for comment.

It was only natural. All those years of feuding have made I-66 more than just a way for people to get to and from work. I-66 is a symbol of opposing visions about how people should travel and where they should live.

Nothing about the deal changed the underlying hopes and resentments. We’ll see that during the Virginia Department of Transportation hearings in March on the design of the high-occupancy toll lanes for I-66 inside the Capital Beltway. Nothing about the schedule for creating the HOT lanes in mid-2017 changed as a result of the Richmond deal.

What did change was that the governor agreed to widen the highway at the same time, and without preconditions, but the widening plan still needs to go through the standard environmental review process. So we’re going to see the advocacy groups again on that, and they will be joined by the people who live right along the route who want to protect their interests.

The four-mile widening targets the most problematic part of I-66 during rush hours eastbound. If you’re going to put new asphalt anywhere, do it between the Dulles Connector Road and Ballston, the stretch where masses of vehicles come together and maneuver to be in their best lanes.

The goal of the HOT lanes and of the widening project is to add capacity to the highway. It just depends on how you define “capacity.” The extreme faction for widening defines capacity strictly as more lane space. They mean capacity for more cars. The HOT lanes advocates, on the other hand, talk about more people-moving capacity. You can do that with fewer cars, by managing traffic, making it easier to carpool and adding commuter buses.

Advocates for widening reacted more positively to the governor’s announcement.

“This compromise solution will relieve congestion by adding much needed highway and transit capacity to the region’s most congested transportation corridor sooner, rather than later,” said a statement from the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “This is an excellent example of executive-legislative, bipartisan cooperation to advance the greater public good.”

State Sens. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax), Jennifer T. Wexton (D-Loudoun) and Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William) — all representing Northern Virginia districts outside the Beltway — issued a collective statement saying in part that, “For years, our constituents have faced an impenetrable wall of traffic where I-66 meets the Dulles Toll Road and then drops down to two travel lanes. This area is a tangible barrier that has historically inhibited outside-the-Beltway drivers from traveling to Arlington or the District of Columbia.”

Those who gave top billing to the car alternatives contained in the HOT lanes plan were less enthusiastic. “We are deeply disappointed by legislators of both parties,” read the collective response of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center. The groups acknowledged that the governor made a political compromise that preserved the HOT lanes plan, with its out-of-the-car options, but added, “We urge legislators to understand that an economically successful region like ours cannot build our way out of congestion through highway expansion.”

None of those people will stop caring about I-66. And then, there are the commuters, the people who will actually determine what happens along the interstate. Leaving aside transportation ideology, people studying the I-66 problem don’t profess to being dead certain about what’s going to happen.

The variable toll is supposed to regulate traffic flow, but it will take a while to get the rates right. The hours for tolling or free HOV use will be 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. eastbound and 3 to 7 p.m. westbound, so will we see early and late traffic surges at the edges of those times?

Millions of dollars will be spent to develop the carpool and commuter bus options, but will travelers use them?

Will the widening, supposed to be done by the end of 2019, give the long-distance commuters what they want? No matter how wide the interstate is, it’s still going to be open only to those who meet the high-occupancy vehicle rules or pay the toll.

This is why no transportation plan is ever really done. You make a decision, see what happens, then you tinker. I-66 inside the Beltway is only nine miles long, but it’s a never-ending story.

Photo courtesy of Matt McClain. Click here to read the original story.