Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Washington Post Editorial - March 18

Spot On
Planners should vote to widen Interstate 66.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009; A12

TRAFFIC SNARLS in Northern Virginia are so daunting that it sometimes seems that nothing less than transformational, earth-shifting projects can ease congestion. Yet, for every rail line to Dulles International Airport, there are small-scale fixes that can make life a little better for commuters. Such is the case with a long-stalled project to widen spots of Interstate 66, the perpetually clogged artery that runs through much of Northern Virginia, including Arlington and Fairfax counties. Adding lanes to three noncontiguous segments of the highway inside the Beltway won't turn I-66 into a speedway but could shave crucial minutes off drive times, not to mention generating construction jobs at a crucial time. Regional planners voted recently to delay the plan. They should reverse that decision when they meet today.

Transit advocates and Arlington residents have long opposed any expansion of I-66, a step they consider an affront to smart growth and an enabler of sprawl. When Arlington leaders reluctantly agreed to allow the highway in the 1970s, they extracted a number of concessions, including a pledge to limit the number of lanes. Many Arlington residents see that promise as sacred, but, as Post columnist Marc Fisher reported, then-U.S. Transportation Secretary William Coleman wrote in 1977 that "we cannot guarantee that I-66 will never change." At the time, few could have imagined that road congestion in Northern Virginia would worsen so severely so soon.

Yet, despite excruciating traffic, the project continues to be bogged down in unwieldy bureaucracy and endless studies. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' Transportation Planning Board approved the project in May 2007, then surprisingly voted to postpone construction last month. The first phase, a 1.5-mile widening of I-66 between Fairfax Drive and Sycamore Street, was set to start next year. Planners say they were unclear about the status of a promised Virginia Department of Transportation study on transportation options in the I-66 corridor. Pierce R. Homer, Virginia's transportation secretary, has said a study is underway and will be completed later in the year.

There is too much momentum behind the expansion of I-66 and too little downside to let the project languish. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) and former representative Tom Davis (R) secured about $30 million in federal earmarks for the widening; the money can't be transferred to other projects. Adding lanes to the highway won't require tearing down homes, as the expansion would take place within the current highway footprint. Shoulders would be narrowed at points, but transit officials say there would still be enough room for vehicles to pull over. The sooner construction starts, the more likely the project is to benefit from federal stimulus money. There should be no further delay.

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