I-66 compromise breaks potential road funding gridlock for state

Posted: Wednesday, February 10, 2016 6:30 pm

The political war over tolls on Interstate 66 in last fall’s legislative elections ended in armistice on Wednesday, when Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared he had broken the gridlock with a bipartisan coalition of legislators.

The deal that ends the war will allow tolls to be applied on I-66 inside the Capital Beltway to pay for an arsenal of improvements — from expanded mass transit to accelerated construction of a new eastbound lane on a 4-mile stretch of the traffic-clogged highway.

The agreement smooths the way for state transportation officials to negotiate a public-private transportation deal to widen a 25-mile stretch of I-66 outside of the Beltway — the highest-ranked transportation priority in Virginia — without raising the cost of the $2.1 billion project and potentially raiding funds for other projects in the pending six-year plan.

“We are now fixing the most congested road in the most congested region of the country,” McAuliffe declared in a news conference with House Appropriations Committee Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, and more than a dozen other legislators, including opponents of the original state toll plan for I-66.

Under the compromise, the General Assembly will kill legislation that would prevent the use of tolls to pay for transit improvements to relieve congestion on I-66 inside the Beltway, while committing the state to immediately begin planning and design for widening a 4-mile stretch of the interstate that the Democratic governor called a “choke point.”

“It would have made it very difficult to do (improvements) outside the Beltway without doing inside the Beltway,” said McAuliffe, a former Fairfax County resident who called I-66 “a parking lot” during rush hour.

Jones brokered the compromise. He said it fits within the framework that would be established by his bill, House Bill 1069, to create a statewide policy on tolling in response to a costly agreement in 2012 by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell for imposing an escalating schedule of tolls to improve the Midtown and Downtown tunnels between Norfolk and Portsmouth. State taxpayers ultimately footed the bill for delaying and reducing the tolls under that public-private partnership deal.

The General Assembly’s money committees will release a pending two-year state budget on Feb. 21. It will include a provision in the House that would allow the use of $140 million in new federal transportation money and unallocated funds from the state six-year plan to begin planning the construction of a third lane on eastbound I-66 between the Dulles Connector Road in Fairfax and the Ballston exit (Glebe Road/Fairfax Drive) in Arlington County.

Senate Finance co-chairman Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Augusta, also attended the announcement and said later that he supports the compromise “conceptually.”

“While the deal has not been in front of the Senate as a specific proposal, there is broad support for a solution, and I am personally committed to supporting this proposal,” Hanger said in a text message on Wednesday.

However, the deal was not universally hailed. Del. Robert G. Marshall III, R-Prince William, and his wife, Cathy, attended the announcement with a “No $17 Tolls on I-66” sign that he said House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, paid for as part of a concerted effort to use the issue in legislative elections in Northern Virginia last fall.

Marshall issued a news release that denounced the deal and Jones’ role in making it possible. “The people should decide whether or not tolls should be imposed in Northern Virginia, not political elites or toll companies,” he said.

Matthew Moran, Howell’s policy and communications director, said in response, “There was bipartisan opposition to the plan as it was released last fall. The concern of the speaker and others was that the original plan included new tolls without adding new lane capacity.”

“This agreement immediately begins the widening process for the most congested part of I-66 inside the Beltway, which the speaker sees as great news,” Moran said in an email statement. “The speaker has worked hard for years to find solutions to Virginia’s transportation challenges. This is another positive step forward in that effort.”

The compromise strikes a political balance between the outer suburbs’ demand for a wider roadway in exchange for tolls on lanes now prohibited for single-occupancy vehicles during rush hour and the inner suburbs’ insistence on mass transit improvements to relieve congestion without condemning land for widening the road through cramped Arlington.

“The construction of the additional lane is fine with Arlington because they’re getting a lot of enhancements with transit,” said Sen. Barbara A. Favola, D-Arlington, a former member of the county board.

However, Rep. Don Beyer, D-8th, said Wednesday the proposed deal changes the long-established understanding with Arlington that I-66 would not be widened inside the Beltway.

“My initial reaction is one of concern for Northern Virginians who have worked — many of them for decades — for an alternative approach to big highways,” Beyer said in a statement. “But I continue to learn details of the proposal and to listen to constituents on all sides of this issue.”

The commitment to begin planning now to widen the roadway was proclaimed a victory by opponents of the state’s original plan to toll inside the Beltway to pay for improved bus, van-pool, and carpool services, while waiting five years to consider building another lane.

“For the first time we have a contractual commitment, a legal commitment to widen inside the Beltway — that’s a big deal up in my area,” said Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen, D-Fairfax City, who sent McAuliffe a letter with four other legislators last month opposed to the administration’s initial plan.

Petersen, Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton, D-Loudoun, and Sen. Jeremy S. McPike, D-Prince William, issued a joint statement saying the agreement vindicated their letter, but also said they would continue to scrutinize the details of the deal.

“It has to be a legal commitment,” Petersen said in an interview. “It can’t just be a promise.”

Under the agreement, the House will kill House Bill 1, filed by Del. James M. LeMunyon, R-Fairfax, who said he also considered the compromise a political victory.

“The big news here is we get a commitment for widening the roadway,” LeMunyon said.