Ten years ago, in the summer of 2008, construction was just ramping up for the Virginia I-495 HOT Lane project. Looking back at the issues then, what has changed in 2018 as the I-66 HOT Lane project ramps up? The article below captured familiar themes.
Lots of concerns, lots of politicians making appeasing statements, lots of park lands lost forever, lots of official County letters written to VDOT contractors, and private companies receiving a lot of public land resources and a billion taxpayer dollars, in exchange for collecting tolls for the rest of our lives. Plus, lots of information withheld or details obscured from the public for as long as possible. Sound familiar?
It is also interesting when officials tell drivers to “seek alternative routes.” Later, after drivers have successfully sought these alternative routes, more officials will appear and show interest in protecting neighborhoods from drivers along the alternative routes.
Sacrifice for Wider Beltway?
By Julia O’Donoghue
Like many local mountain bike enthusiasts, Kathy Levy is making frequent trips to Wakefield Park this summer. Levy and her two sons live in Vienna but regularly drive to the park, just outside the Capital Beltway, because of its trails.
Wakefield offers some of the only trails for mountain bikers near the core of the Washington metropolitan area. “It is the only place to do technical riding that is close in,” said Levy. The park, located at 8100 Braddock Road, is home to several mountain bike events during the summer.
But at least a portion of the mountain bike trails will succumb to the expansion of the Capital Beltway, set to start this month. Virginia Department of Transportation and its private partner, Fluor-Transurban, will permanently close some trail areas to add four “high occupancy toll” (HOT) lanes to Interstate 495.
THE BIKE TRAIL is one item in a long list of community amenities that the HOT lanes project could affect. The construction will force clearing of almost every tree within 50 feet of the Beltway on both sides. Sound walls that protect residential neighborhoods from Beltway noise will come down, possibly for several years, and the criteria for replacement is still unclear. And traffic along the Beltway will slow as construction moves forward.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors sent a list of dozens of issues it would like VDOT to address before kicking off the construction later this month. Many residents are up in arms already about trees VDOT and Fluor-Transurban have cut down, even though the actual project has not started.
“That was the tip of the iceberg of a project that has been pretty non-controversial to date because of a lack of information. We are going to start hearing from more people,” said supervisor Jeff McKay (Lee), head of the board’s transportation committee.
THE HOT LANES project is set to expand the Beltway from eight to 12 lanes, with two new toll lanes in each direction from the Springfield interchange to just north of the Dulles Toll road near the American Legion Bridge. Buses, motorcycles, emergency vehicles and cars with three people or more would use the HOT lanes for free All other motorists can opt to pay a toll that will vary by the level of congestion to travel in the new lanes.
The lanes will cost an estimated $1.4 billion in total, with Virginia paying for approximately $400 million and the federal government covering $587 million through a grant. Fluor-Transurban, an Australian company, will provided the rest of the financial backing in exchange for being able to collect and keep all the HOT lanes tolls for the more than 50 years.
The project is appealing for some people because it could allow for mass transit — buses — to move along the Beltway , although the project does not provide any transit or buses. “I am not an enormous proponent of the concept of HOT lanes to begin with but we have to have mass transit on the Beltway,” said McKay. The highway expansion also comes with $250 million worth of upgrades to the Beltway’s aging infrastructure.
VDOT and Fluor Transurban have committed to replacing more than 50 bridges and overpasses, replacing and adding new sound walls, and up grading 12 of the interchanges along the HOT lanes stretch of the Beltway.
But even people who support the HOT lanes expect the project’s construction to cause a lot of pain over the next several years. “I do think the pay off is going to be worth it in the end but that end is a long way out,” said supervisor John Foust (Dranesville), who represents McLean, Great Falls and Herndon.
According to VDOT spokesperson Steve Titunik, in general, all the trees within 50 feet of the Beltway on either side will be taken down. “Is it going to be severe? Yeah. Are we going to take down a lot of trees? Yeah,” he said.
“You cannot take all the trees out and have the Beltway bare to the community,” said supervisor Sharon Bulova (Braddock.) Bulova said it is unacceptable that the park could be left with potentially no barrier between it and the highway.
Wakefield is one of the most popular parks in the system, according to Winnie Shapiro, Braddock representative on the county park authority board. “I think people are going to be shocked by the tree loss,” said Shapiro.
BUT THE HOT Lanes construction will have the most dramatic effect on local traffic pat terns and congestion. Officials plan to start work on every single interchange and bridge along the portion of the Beltway that includes the HOT lanes at the same time.
“While work may be going on at all the bridges, some bridges will have more work than others,” Titunik, said.
Construction will stop and no lanes will be closed on the Beltway between approximately 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Motorists who are trying to cross over the Beltway between Braddock Road and Route 123 may see more severe impacts than Beltway commuters. Some bridges could have lane closures for long stretches, said Titunik. He added that motorists living in this area should consider alternative routes.
Some supervisors fear the effect on neighbor hoods of thousands of commuters seeking alternative routes. “The only realistic way to avoid the Beltway is to cut through neighborhoods,” said Foust. County officials and the public have not had much advance notice of new aspects of the HOT lanes plans and sometimes they don’t have enough to time to adequately respond to new information.
Not even Foust, the local supervisor, found out about VDOT’s plan to clear acres of trees across from Cooper Middle School before it had already happened. Several community members said the lack of communication has made them skeptical of how VDOT will handle similar situations in the future.
“When overnight, they clear an area across from a middle school, that kind of thing makes you lose trust. We would have worked with them in good faith to come up with another solution,” said McLean resident Mary Anne Hilliard. Supervisors set up an ad hoc committee to meet regularly with VDOT about the HOT lanes project and strengthen the lines of communication between the agency and local government.