Controversial I-66 ramp changes advance—with assurances of more public consultation

A new ramp configuration proposed by VDOT as part of its I-66 Express Lanes project sparked sharp criticism from nearby residents at the April 19 TPB meeting. The board sought assurances from VDOT for more consultation before the ramp design is finalized. (Flickr/VaDOT)

The Transportation Planning Board met on Wednesday, April 19, and took action on several items, including a proclamation of this year’s regional Bike to Work Day event and selecting several bicycle and pedestrian projects in Northern Virginia to receive federal funding.

Much of the meeting was spent discussing a new ramp configuration proposed by VDOT as part of its plan to add Express Lanes to I-66 outside the Capital Beltway. The proposed configuration has drawn sharp criticism from nearby residents as well as elected officials representing the affected communities.

At its April 19 meeting, the TPB gave its conditional approval to a controversial change in the design of a new ramp planned as part of the I-66 Express Lanes project in Northern Virginia.

The proposed design change, made public by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in March, would significantly increase the height of a ramp planned near the Dunn Loring Metro station—a change VDOT says is necessary to avoid having to relocate a Metro power sub-station.

MORE: Get all the details about the proposed design change

People who live nearby say the design change would cause the ramp to tower over their homes, an elementary school, and public shopping areas, irreversibly changing the visual character of the area for the worse and bringing more noise and air pollution to their communities.

“Where was the public input in the design process?”

Nine people opposed to the change attended the TPB’s April meeting and voiced a range of concerns about the new ramp design. Many also expressed a concern about the lack of public consultation in the design process. One of those was Deanna Heier, who first spoke about the design changes at the TPB’s March meeting.

“You should know that these two ramps were originally eliminated by VDOT’s own designers during the public discussion process,” Heier said in March. “We are concerned, and frankly disheartened, to see them reintroduced by the private partner and want assurances that the public’s concerns and VDOT’s promises to the public are being kept,” she added.

At the April meeting, she urged the TPB to vote against the proposed changes until the public had more of an opportunity to weigh in.

“Why is this all happening behind closed doors?” Heier asked. “We had an agreement. We had a preferred alternative. Please vote ‘no’ today and send a clear message that the TPB expects partnership with and due process for the public,” she said.

MORE: Listen to all of the public comments voiced at the April 19 meeting

Virginia state delegate Mark Keam, who represents the affected neighborhoods in the Virginia House of Delegates, also spoke during the public comment period at the April meeting. He, too, voiced concern about the process and the lack of notice given to affected residents and elected officials before the proposal came to the TPB for approval.

“I didn’t find out about the latest proposals until we came back from the General Assembly this year,” Keam said. “And, as a state delegate, I should have known about this before my constituents found out through their own due diligence online. I’d urge that we would take some time, make sure that the folks back here and all the other hundreds and thousands of others who are being affected, have a chance to be heard,” he said.

Board members seek to address the public’s concerns

Board member Linda Smyth, a Fairfax County supervisor representing the affected neighborhoods, voiced her dissatisfaction with the process, much as she did at the March TPB meeting. She also proposed making the TPB’s approval contingent on the review of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

“I have had a discussion with Rene’e Hamilton (VDOT) about moving forward on this,” Smyth said. “We have agreed that we will move forward, but that all of the access points east of the Route 50 interchange will not be analyzed by TPB staff until the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has a chance to actually meet and discuss these changes,” she said.

Board member Phil Mendelson (DC) proposed delaying the TPB’s vote instead.

“I think it would be wiser to wait a month, see if this can get worked out, and then come back in a month to take this up,” Mendelson said. “And that way we have greater assurance—maybe not a guarantee, but at least greater assurance—that there won’t be changes significant enough that it would require us to start over with the air quality conformity analysis,” he said.

VDOT’s Hamilton and other board members stressed the importance of keeping the project moving, given that the designs for it are far from final.

“No plan, when we get to this stage, is final,” explained Hamilton. “When we brought this project before to this board, it was a preliminary concept plan. It is not a final design. That’s why we go through a final design of 66 and all projects,” she said.

VDOT will, under federal planning rules, have flexibility in the final design for the new ramp, even once the project has been formally included in the region’s long-range plan. But the agency must submit a preliminary design now to ensure that federal funding can flow to the project once the design is finalized.

Ultimately, the board gave the proposal its approval on the condition put forth by Smyth. VDOT also said that it would take extra steps to consult with the public, including holding more neighborhood meetings in May ahead of the wider public meetings it had already planned for June.

Pending the input of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the proposed design changes east of US 50 will be included in the federally required air quality conformity analysis this summer before they come back to the TPB for final approval in the fall.

More CLRP amendments get the green light

Two other amendments received the TPB’s go-ahead at the April meeting and will be included in the air quality analysis scheduled for this summer. One was a new ramp on I-95 near the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia. The other was an earlier completion date for the replacement of the Harry Nice Memorial Bridge in Maryland. Both projects were free of controversy or unresolved issues, and several board members spoke up to make sure the projects would move ahead even if the I-66 ramp changes did not.

At the end of the April meeting, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) also gave notice of its intent to request that the state’s I-270 Innovative Corridor Management (ICM) project be added to the CLRP this year as well. A 30-day public comment period is currently underway. The board will vote at its May meeting on whether to include the project in this summer’s air quality conformity analysis, along with the projects the board approved in April.

MORE: Learn more about the other MDOT and VDOT amendments approved by the TPB at its April meeting

MORE: Comment on MDOT’s proposed I-270 Innovative Corridor Management (ICM) project

All of the actions taken by the TPB at its April 19 meeting

  • Adopted the 2017 Bike to Work Day proclamation. The board officially proclaimed Friday, May 19, as Bike to Work Day. More than 18,000 people are expected to participate in the regional event aimed at promoting bicycle commuting. Learn more and read the proclamation.
  • Approved bicycle and pedestrian projects in Northern Virginia to receive federal funding. Seven projects were approved to receive $2.7 million in funding under the federal Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). TAP aims to support alternatives to traditional highway construction, including bicycle, pedestrian, Complete Streets, and Safe Routes to School projects. Learn more about the selected projects.
  • Recommended motor vehicle emissions budgets for the region’s new ozone maintenance plan. The budgets would set caps on emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the two main ingredients in the formation of ozone. The region recently met federal standards for ground-level ozone concentrations and must now develop a plan showing how it will continue to meet the standards. Learn more about the recommended emissions budgets.
  • Amended VDOT’s portion of the FY 2017-2022 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). The amendment adds funding for VDOT’s I-66 Outside-the-Beltway improvements, which includes the addition of Express Lanes. Find out what was included in the amendment.
  • Advanced CLRP amendments proposed by Maryland and Virginia. The amendments include new or changed ramps on I-95 and I-66 in Northern Virginia and an earlier completion date for the replacement of the Harry Nice Bridge in Maryland. The board heard and reviewed public comments on the proposed amendments before approving them for inclusion in a federally required air quality conformity analysis this summer. Read the summary of comments received.
  • Approved the scope of work for the upcoming air quality conformity analysis. The scope outlines the modeling tools and assumptions that will be used to forecast future emissions under the CLRP. Read the approved scope of work.

Other items of note from the April 19 TPB meeting:

  • Draft performance targets for maintenance of the region’s transit vehicles and facilities were presented to the TPB at its April meeting. New federal rules require states, MPOs, and transit agencies to work together to set such targets and monitor performance. The board will be asked to adopt the regional Transit Asset Management targets in May. Learn more about the draft Transit Asset Management targets.
  • In his report to the board, Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) Chairman Jeremy Martin said the committee is reviewing and will be weighing in on the brainstorm list of projects, programs, and policies being developed by the TPB’s Long-Range Plan Task Force. Listen to Martin’s full report.
  • The TPB’s spring Street Smart bicycle and pedestrian safety campaign will kick off Tuesday, April 25, with an event at the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Transit Center in Maryland. See photos from last fall’s Street Smart kick-off.
  • The TPB’s Long-Range Plan Task Force met for the first time on April 10. Task force chairman Jay Fisette gave the board an update. Listen to Fisette’s report.
  • Maryland has proposed adding its I-270 Innovative Corridor Management project to the Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan (CLRP). The TPB is accepting public comments on the project through May 13. Learn more and comment.

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