The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission has approved a deal with the Virginia state government that will give the commission control over spending toll revenue from Interstate 66 inside the Beltway HOT lanes.
The commission’s 13-7 vote on Thursday night means that the state will not turn over the toll revenue to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation in Richmond for distribution to various carpooling and transit programs.
Keeping those decisions in the hands of Northern Virginia representatives seems like a no-brainer. So what’s with the seven “no” votes? The issue on the table wasn’t whether to create high-occupancy toll lanes I-66 inside the Capital Beltway and it wasn’t whether or when to add a third eastbound lane to the highway. The issue was, if the state goes ahead and does the HOT lanes, who decides how to spend the toll money in a way that benefits the toll road users?
Virginia House Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Herndon), a commission member who favored the deal, framed the vote this way: “Do we want to be a part of the decision-making?” Sharon Bulova (D), the Fairfax Board of Supervisors chairman and a commission member, had made a similar statement in support of the agreement, adding: “This body is not approving the Transform I-66 project [the state’s name for the HOT lanes program] inside or outside the Beltway.” It’s the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the transportation policy-making panel for Virginia, that makes those calls — and it’s scheduled to make some of them next week.
Del. Randy Minchew (R-Leesburg) summed up the opposition viewpoint when he said that if the commissioners approved the agreement on spending toll revenue, “We’re accessories before the fact.” Some of the opponents are General Assembly members who this fall campaigned against the McAuliffe administration plan to create HOT lanes inside the Beltway until the eastbound side of the highway is widened.
“What we really ought to do is start over,” said Del. Jim LeMunyon, a Republican whose district includes portions of Fairfax and Loudoun counties. “That’s what the people want.”
It’s certainly not what all the people want. With some exceptions, the voting reflected traditional political battle lines on how to address traffic problems on the heavily congested 10 miles of I-66 inside the Beltway. Broadly speaking, representatives of Washington’s outer suburbs want to add more lanes inside the Beltway. Those representatives tend to be Republicans. Those who represent communities closer to the region’s core tend to favor plans that manage traffic and provide commuters with alternatives to driving their own cars. They tend to be Democrats. Some are reluctant, to say the least, about widening the highway through Arlington County.
“While some have chosen to vilify Arlington, this is in fact a change in our approach,” commission member and Arlington County Board Chairman Mary Hynes (D) said of the agreement. The state’s plan, described in the agreement, would convert today’s HOV lanes to HOT lanes at rush hours in 2017. The Virginia Department of Transportation later would evaluate the performance of the lanes and determine how traffic on other routes in the I-66 corridor was affected. If one of several thresholds is crossed, showing that travel conditions have deteriorated, the state would add a third eastbound lane between the Beltway and Ballston, where most of the eastbound traffic exits.
If the state’s measures show that the HOT lanes program hasn’t achieved its goals for moving people through the corridor, Hynes said, “we can probably live with the widening.”
Commissioners opposed to the deal introduced several poison-pill amendments that would have killed it. One, for example, would have postponed a commission vote to April 2016. Nick Donohue, the state’s deputy transportation secretary, had made plain to the commission at the start of the meeting that a vote to reject or delay the agreement would result in the state assigning management of the toll money to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
LeMunyon, a supporter of the delay motion, said it would give the Virginia General Assembly “a chance to come up with something more ambitious” to solve the traffic problems on I-66.
Another commissioner, Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D), noted the decades-long debates over the future of I-66, and asked: “Does anyone in this room think the General Assembly can do that?”
All the amendments were rejected.
After the final vote to approve the agreement, commissioner and Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette (D) said, “I see this as a long, well-worked, hard-fought compromise.” The I-66 plan, he said, “will move ore people, not just more vehicles.”
The Commonwealth Transportation Board is scheduled to meet in Northern Virginia on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Tuesday meeting, a noon work session at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center, 5000 Seminary Rd., Alexandria, will include discussions of plans to add HOT lanes on I-66 inside and outside the Beltway. The board will hold a special session for public comment on the I-66 plans from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday at George Mason High School, 7124 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church.
The board’s meeting on its action items is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, also at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center. The action-item agenda includes authorization for tolling on I-66 inside the Beltway and a board vote to approve the same arrangement adopted Thursday night by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. The board also will take public comments at the start of its Wednesday meeting.