With details still being sketched out, it may be no surprise that the Virginia Department of Transportation is having a hard time winning over skeptics of its plan to make Interstate 66 a toll road during rush hours inside the Beltway.
And at an Aug. 1 feedback forum, it seemed VDOT’s promises to take into account community concerns weren’t turning many frowns upside down.
Transportation officials promise that the project, announced by the McAuliffe administration in March, will be fundamentally different from other recent tolling efforts, which were turned over to private contractors by the state government.
“We are not running a business here – it’s a lot different concept,” said VDOT special-projects staffer Amanda Baxter, who had to attempt to soothe the audience of about 100 people who showed up at the forum, held at Arlington’s Central Library.
Baxter and the other VDOT representatives were subjected to boos and heckling in the early part of the meeting as they outlined a proposal that continues to evolve and still leaves some major questions unresolved:
• What will the hours of tolling be?
• What will the cost be?
• Will those driving in three-occupant vehicles be exempt from tolls, or those with two in the car? (Current planning appears leaning to two.)
• Will hybrid vehicles be exempt from tolls? Will those traveling to and from Washington Dulles International Airport?
• How will those who break the rules be caught and punished?
Transportation officials promise to have a firm proposal ready in the next two to three months, and aim to have the tolling in place by 2017.
The forum was arranged by Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th), and brought out Hope, state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st) and Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt (I). Three prospective County Board members – Democrats Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol plus independent Audrey Clement – also were in the crowd.
VDOT officials plan to use toll revenue to pay for a host of improvements in the I-66 corridor inside the Beltway. But the public forum revealed worries from the public that the funds would be siphoned off for downstate projects, plus concerns that the whole operation could someday be sold off to a private firm.
Baxter didn’t offer a blanket denial of that latter possibility, but said it was not likely.
“This is a VDOT project,” she said. “I have heard no other message.”
Others in the crowd, which included representation from as far away as Stafford County, voiced concerns that putting financial barriers up could discourage some from coming to the inner suburbs, thus hurting the local economy. At least one speaker wanted to know why there couldn’t be a cap on annual revenue; if the target was met, the rest of the year should see no tolling, he said.
And there is the perennial concern of those living near the highway: Drivers reluctant to pay tolls would be pushed onto arterial streets, choking neighborhoods with congestion and vehicle exhaust.
VDOT officials said a consultant was in the process of a “traffic-diversion” study, to see what is likely to happen to neighborhood streets if tolls go into effect.
State officials say they are planning to hold hearings on the draft proposal in October, after its release. For updated information on the project, see the Web site at www.transform66.org.