A “spot improvement” on westbound I-66 between the George Mason Drive and Sycamore Street is underway.

These projects which are essentially short-distance widenings, have been the subject of great debate for more than a decade. VDOT has long wanted to widen I-66 to three lanes in each direction; Arlington, smart growth and environmental groups have been strongly opposed.

The original agreement to build I-66 included an agreement to not widen the highway beyond two lanes in each direction. VDOT settled on a series of “spot improvements,” which widen sections of I-66 to three lanes. (Though most residents of Arlington would disagree that these are “improvements” at all.) This section is called “Spot 1.”

In February of 2009, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board voted to put these projects on hold, only to reverse itself the very next month as Fairfax County put pressure on Supervisor Cathy Hudgins to break with Arlington. Since then, there has been little to stop this project from moving forward, particularly because it has received earmarked funding from Congress that can be used for nothing else.

I-66 looking westbound from Ohio St.

The contract was awarded in May, and construction has begun.

In the photo at right, you can see the (semi) vegetated median between the left shoulder and the Metrorail tracks. It is being partially removed to make room for the additional roadway width.

You can see the demolition of the median in the top image.

The Custis Trail passes under I-66 along this stretch of highway. At the point were it crosses underneath there are three bridges: one for each direction of traffic and one for the Metrorail tracks. The westbound bridge is being widened.

To accommodate pedestrian and bicycle traffic during construction, VDOT has constructed a structure for protection (below). There have been occasional detours while work is being done here. The detour is well marked and only slightly longer.

Once the bridge is widened, there will be less daylight at this point. Although there is some relatively inadequate lighting now, it may need to be upgraded as part of the projects.

According to the project’s entry in the 2030 Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan, the main motives for the project are to reduce “recurring congestion, support the economic vitality of the metropolitan area, increase the safety of all users, increase the accessibility of people and freight, and to promote efficient system management and operation.”

Furthermore, the project will ostensibly enable the corridor to serve as an efficient emergency evacuation route. But the suggestion that this will improve the road as an emergency evacuation route is just silly. The capacity of I-66 for evacuation will not be increased by adding a lane for a mile and a half. This language is likely a holdover from the arguments used for widening the entire length of I-66 inside the Beltway.

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.

Steve Offutt has been working at the confluence of business and environment for almost 20 years, with experience in climate change solutions, green building, business-government partnerships, transportation demand management, and more. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children and is a cyclist, pedestrian, transit rider and driver.