I-66 Follies: How Many Lanes Are Enough?
The strange story of Interstate 66--the highway that became a symbol for both sides in the eternal war between proponents of urban density and suburban development--just got a whole lot stranger.
Just as the Obama administration's stimulus plan is pumping unfathomable riches into transportation projects all around the country, the planners who decide what roads get built in the Washington area have decided to say No, thanks, to any quick start on widening I-66 inside the Beltway.
For decades, one of the most maddening bottlenecks in one of the nation's most congested road systems has been the bizarre narrowing of I-66 from three lanes to two as commuters pass inside the Beltway on their journey to the region's core.
This design, of course, makes no sense; it's a bit of highway engineering that got smushed together with social engineering in a political compromise. Back in the 1970s, Arlington County, one of the nation's leading pioneers in the movement for walkable, transit-oriented communities, fought plans by the state and federal governments to cut an Interstate highway through the county's midsection. The locals wanted transit, not highways, and they were adamant about preserving their neighborhoods rather than having them severed as so many big highways had ripped apart urban areas in the 60s and 70s.
After about a decade of agitation and courtroom action (for a comprehensive history of the fight, check out the amazing Roadstothefuture.com), this grandfather of all highway battles ended in a decision by then-U.S. Transportation Secretary William Coleman to approve a 10-mile stretch of I-66 from the Beltway to the Potomac River with just four lanes of auto traffic rather than the eight lanes that had been proposed. In addition, Coleman gave the then-budding Metro rail system a choice pathway down the median of the road. The deal came with assorted other goodies for Arlingtonians, including sound barriers, a submerged roadway through densely developed areas, and a ban on trucks, but the key to the agreement was the limit on lanes.
Fast forward--well, crawl forward through years of mind-numbing traffic--and the clamor for adding lanes to the interstate has risen to such a level that all but the most devoted of smart growth lovers have given in. Another lane in each direction on 66 wouldn't be the end of civilization as we know it. By the early years of this century, it was hard to find any Virginia governors, senators or local officials who opposed the widening of 66. At least three straight governors have supported widening in some form, and the candidates in this year's election are eager to embrace any road improvement that could ease the pain of any northern Virginia voter.
Then, last week, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government's Transportation Planning Board, which sets road-building priorities for the region, voted to scrap plans to widen 66. Reason: Not enough money to conduct a multi-year study (studies of I-66 have likely employed a majority of the nation's engineers over the course of the last half century.)
Back in 1977, it was already obvious that the battle to keep I-66 from becoming a superhighway would require eternal vigilance. "We cannot guarantee that I-66 will never change," Coleman wrote back then. But he added that "the conditions I am here imposing are the most stringent the law provides."
In 1999, however, Congress and President Bill Clinton reversed much of the Coleman Decision, keeping the truck ban intact, but otherwise granting Virginia the option to expand the highway as it saw fit.
Ever since then, the state has been tied up in bureaucratic and political knots over how to proceed.
This latest vote is by no means the last word on the 66 saga, as new Fairfax board chairman Sharon Bulova tells The Post's Eric Weiss that the county's representatives on Metro's board will now reverse their votes and seek to put the widening back on track. The new twists in the 66 story are fresh meat for the state's gubernatorial candidates, and Republican Bob McDonnell, who is eager to demonstrate his love for northern Virginia, was first out of the box with a letter denouncing the delay. "This decision essentially means that no aspect of the project, even a 'shovel ready' spot improvement that was slated to begin this year, will go forward," McDonnell says. "Now is the time for action, not more study."
But study is the primary weapon that opponents wield in their fight for delay, and for those who have mastered the art of battle against government, delay is victory.
I've always liked the parkway design of the modest 66 inside the Beltway, and I think Arlington ought to have a strong say in what kind of road goes through its turf. But it's also true that the squeeze into fewer lanes as a traveler nears the District never made any sense. Those many years of study have resulted in plans to add lanes without substantially widening the road's right of way. No more houses would be taken under the current widening plan.
Arlington is right to defend its role as the conscience of the area. The county continues to lead in adopting innovative design to encourage suburbanites to get out of their cars and try other ways of getting around. But 66 is there, and it seems foolhardy to spurn money when it's raining down from Washington. A promise is a promise, but the best way to ease northern Virginia's traffic woes is to forge ahead with transit improvements while also making small, strategic fixes in the road system. The regional planners who cast last week's vote should steer the stimulus money toward both transit and roads; I-66 is a good place to invest some of that cash.
What's your view?
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