I-66 Spot Improvement Project: Arlington’s Bridge To Nowhere

Last Friday at around 3:30 p.m. I was biking on a pedestrian bridge over I-66 and noticed traffic backed up all the way from Fairfax Drive to the Sycamore Street exit. So what else is new, you ask? Well, the fact that a little more than a year ago, VDOT spent about $15 million dollars of taxpayer money earmarked by Congressman Frank Wolf to construct an extended merge lane to alleviate congestion between Fairfax Drive and Sycamore Street.

Arlington transit buffs including Yours Truly objected to the project, known as Spot Improvement #1, observing that construction of a 1.9 mile extended merge lane wouldn’t alleviate congestion along that stretch of road, because most of the traffic on I-66 westbound is heading to the Beltway and beyond. Since the merge lane ends at the next exit, it serves only local traffic not main line I-66. The Fourth Circuit of Appeals brushed that argument aside, and construction proceeded apace. Now despite clear evidence that Spot #1 isn’t doing the job it was intended to do, VDOT is gearing up with the next phase of the project, Spot Improvement #2, an additional on ramp to westbound I-66 at Sycamore Street, also to be paid for out of Congressman Wolf’s earmark.

Oblivious to the continuing bottleneck on I-66, the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance (NVTA), which is a shill for area developers, lobbied this summer to reinstate the earmark for Spot #2, claiming “Westbound I-66 inside the Beltway travelers benefit greatly from the difference the new lane between Ballston and Sycamore Street has made in reducing daily Ballston bottleneck.” Tell that to the poor schmuck who lives in Haymarket parked on I-66 near the Sycamore Street exit at 3 p.m on Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) under the direction of Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette just approved a VDOT authored multi-modal corridor study commissioned by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) in 2009 that recommended road widening with a transit component as the long term solution to congestion on I-66 inside the Beltway. Among the problems with that study noted by Greater Greater Washington blogger David Alpert, the Spot Improvement Project was included as an assumption in the model that produced the recommendation rather than an option. Thus its actual utility was not demonstrated in the report.

Worse still Arlington County has signed off on the study with the caveat that VDOT use a “tiered” approach in implementing the study’s recommendations. What Arlington hopes to get out of this is the institution of enhanced HOV/HOT or express bus service in the corridor, followed by road widening later. But what Arlington is likely to get instead is road widening first with the promise of bus service later.

That’s because the Spot Improvement Project now in progress will construct three discontinuous merge lanes–the first two described above and a third extended merge lane at Spout Run–instead of the continuous stretch of road needed for a bus to make headway. Not only will spot improvement construction preclude rapid transit bus in the near term, it will by virtue of its failure to increase mobility in the corridor provide the political impetus for full scale road widening later. This was predicted by Arlington transit buff Steve Offutt who commented presciently on Arlington’s CommuterPageBlog in 2010:

Once the “spot improvements” are all in place, there’s a good chance political pressure to widen the relatively short remaining sections will grow very strong, and VDOT will eventually prevail. It will be interesting to see how long that takes.

Once road widening is done, then VDOT may permit bus service but not before, and Arlington County will have no leverage in setting priorities, since it signed off on both the Spot Improvement Project in 2009 and the multi-modal corridor study in 2012.

I’m not opposed to road widening per se, as long as all other mobility options have been ruled out, and it’s accompanied by a robust transit component. What I am opposed to is wasteful, pork barrel projects that serve no useful purpose funded out of federal earmarks underwritten by U.S. taxpapers. The Spot Improvement Project does not improve mobility in the corridor and as such constitutes Arlington’s Bridge to Nowhere.

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