VDOT still wants a bike trail on the shoulder. Image by MPD01605 licensed under Creative Commons.

Virginia is planning to build a new trail while widening I-66, but their proposal would put joggers and bicyclists on the highway itself, next to speeding cars. State highway officials insist that moving the trail anywhere else would mean taking more land, pitting advocates against neighbors who don't want to lose part of their yards. But it doesn't have to be this way.

The Virginia Department of Transportation wants to widen I-66 between the Capital Beltway and Haymarket to as many as ten lanes, including a mix of general and High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. In some spots, that means multiple new lanes are going to be added, particularly in parts of Oakton and Vienna in Fairfax County where the highway is only six lanes (not including the shoulders that get used as extra travel lanes during rush hour). Construction could start later this year.

There are also plans for a new trail along the highway. Parts of the trail already exist (like the Custis Trail in Arlington) and being able to connect multiple trail segments to create one long one would be a real boon to Northern Virginia's cyclists and hikers.

But right now, parts of the proposed trail would put users on the highway itself, between the sound barrier and the shoulder. It would technically be a trail, but not one that really abides by any of the best practices of trail building. It would force trail users to walk or bike next to traffic, exposing them to noise and vehicle exhaust, and making the trail hard to reach from surrounding neighborhoods.

While bicycling advocates want to move the trail, VDOT insists they would need even more space in order to place the trail next to the highway. Meanwhile, neighbors who are already losing part of their yards due to the highway. Last weekend, the Washington Post interviewed homeowners living next to I-66 who fear losing even more land if the trail is moved, and are worried about strangers using a trail that went behind their homes.

Again, most of the space being taken is to add lanes to an already-wide highway. Even if you think it's “obvious” that I-66 has to be widened, the impacts of doing that (like having to condemn land to add lanes) are far larger than the effects of moving a trail.

The issue isn't the trail, it's the highway

Virginia's Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne told the Post that it's “not fair” to change designs now to help make the trail better. What he is really saying is that everyone's concerns about the project are valid when it means highways get to be wider, but not when people point out a huge flaw in the plan to help people who would use the new trail.

We have been here before. Ten years ago, the Intercounty Connector in Maryland was a new highway that came with the promise of a parallel trail. But most of the trail was never built because state officials didn't want to add more pavement, even though the highway itself was one giant impervious surface.

A growing number of state officials are weighing in to ensure that the I-66 trail actually works for people on foot or bikes rather than simply an afterthought. We do have the knowledge on how to design a better trail, and it starts with moving it off of the highway.

Trail users aren't greedy simply for asking that things be done right the first time. And transportation officials should not be the ones to pull a bait and switch (again) on residents who simply expect what was promised. What is ultimately not fair is the expectation that highways are forever in need of expansion, and we can only accommodate other travel modes (be it transit, walking, or biking) if there's space left over.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.