Monday, February 12, 2007

Ask The Green Miles: Should Virginia Widen I66 Through Arlington?

A question from What's Up Eric ...
What about all this stuff about widening I-66? My immediate answer is no, we don’t want to encourage more driving, but what is the answer? I’m not sure the Orange Line can handle any more Metro riders at rush hour either.

The short answer is, given our transportation history of rejecting smart solutions in favor of the politically expedient, why wouldn't we expect Virginia to expand I66?

Originally, Interstate 66 through Arlington was proposed as an eight-lane double-decker highway. Only intense opposition from Arlington residents limited the road to its current four lanes and led to efficiencies like HOV and space for the Orange Line in the median. The website of the Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation provides an excellent background of Interstate 66, chronicle of local opposition, and details of current expansion plans.

The greatest myth about transportation in the DC area is that our problems are due to capacity issues. Not true. We have usage problems related to our work and social systems being set up around single-car drivers all leaving their single family homes in the suburbs at the same time trying to get on the same roads to the same city where their jobs are located. The majority of DC-area workers:

* Drive in their cars alone
Go from rural/suburban areas to DC or adjacent areas
Leave home between 6am and 10am
Leave work between 3:30pm and 7:30pm

Our region's elected officials have done absolutely nothing to discourage these patterns. Home prices encourage long commutes. Employers stubbornly demand workers come to the office from 9am-5pm daily so they can be supervised in person, even though many of us are computer drones who could just as easily work from home. When Metro tried to encourage off-peak and reverse commuting last December, it got little support.

So what do we get? Attempts at easy answers.

Wider highways. More of them.

Even though a new lane of highway can only move 1,500-2,000 vehicles an hour. Even though the DC area is already an EPA nonattainment area for ground-level ozone and fine particulates.

And from the recent "forums" on proposals to add spot expansions to I66, VDOT seems hell bent on adding that pavement. You can read more on the strong negative Arlington reaction to meetings in the Sun Gazette and the Arlington Connection.

Eric is right that Metro's Orange Line is stressed. The system as a whole passed 200 million customer trips for the first time in fiscal year '06 (July '05-June '06). Especially during the height of the morning rush, the slightest problem can send ripples throughout the system, a problem I've experienced many times.

But we ask more and more of Metro without giving the system the support it needs. Metro continues to lack a dedicated funding source, even though it's the only major transit system in the area to rely on three states/districts for funding, meaning Metro has to beg, borrow, and steal every year to make ends meet.

Instead, we try to pave our way out of the problem without trying to encourage more carpooling, biking/walking, or reverse or off-peak commuting. Knowing the history, I would expect nothing less.

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