April 12, 2010
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Unsnarling I-66 Congestion: Solutions are at hand to address backups on I-66
BY SEN. CHAP PETERSEN
Reprinted, with permission, from the March 10, 2010, issue of the Fairfax Connection, Fairfax, VA.
According to his biographers, Richard Nixon as a young boy used to listen to the trains rolling by his house in rural California and draw inspiration that one day he could visit places far away.
The young Nixon had the good fortune to not live next to Interstate 66 in Fairfax County. Because nobody draws inspiration from stalled traffic.
Fairfax County has been wrestling with the congestion of Interstate 66 since the early 1980s. When I joined the Northern Virginia Regional Commission as City Councilman in 1998, traffic along Interstate 66 was already the #1 complaint of my constituents.
A year later, the Commission voted and passed the Interstate 66 “MIS” study, which promised a dual solution for the corridor: (a) adding more lanes inside and outside the Beltway, and (b) extending the Orange Line Metrorail from Vienna to Centreville (and eventually Manassas). Solutions were at hand.
Twelve years later, nothing much has happened. Instead, the Interstate 66 solution has been forgotten amid the hoopla surrounding Fairfax County mega-projects like “the Mixing Bowl” or “Rail to Dulles.” Yet that corridor continues to carry hundreds of thousands of vehicle trips a day, while incurring traffic jams at all hours.
This year in Richmond, a small group of legislators is trying to break the impasse. It is clear to us that, without a public-private project like HOT Lanes, there is not sufficient public money to fund cost-intensive solutions like fixed-rail or the widening of the current Interstate 66 corridor.
It’s time to think outside the box.
Over the past decade, the technology behind “bus rapid transit” (or “BRT”) has made it a cost-efficient service with the ability to transport the same number of people as fixed rail at a fraction of the cost. Modern cities like Seattle and Toronto rely on BRT to move their commuters within a large urban community.
The Interstate 66 corridor is a perfect match for BRT for a number of reasons. First, there is a high demand for transit service heading inside the Beltway. Second, there is an existing interstate with dedicated lanes along the corridor. Third, the interstate already has parking areas and access to arterials like the Fairfax County Parkway.
Like any good solution, it won’t be free. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation estimates a cost of $250 million to establish a functioning network with sufficient parking, at-grade boarding and direct access ramps from Interstate 66. Notably, that is about 6 percent of the cost to build the Dulles Rail line from East Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue.
This week, a number of “outside the Beltway” lawmakers signed a letter which proposed that we “green light” a BRT system along Interstate 66 “as soon as possible” and without waiting on more time-consuming studies of a problem which we all know exists. Instead, let’s let private companies bid on this contract and show us how the service can be best optimized at a reasonable cost.
Perhaps years from now, a child in Fairfax County will hear the BRT bus going by and dream of destinations unknown. Or at least know that his parents will be getting home from work.
Editor’s Note: Petersen is a Democrat representing Fairfax in the Virginia State Senate.
Photo of bus driver by Larry Levine, WMATA