Commuters on Interstate 66 are dodging construction zones and sitting in heavy traffic while they wait for the new I-66 Express Lanes that will eventually provide a toll/HOV option.
As construction ramps up, Prince William County-based transit service OmniRide is offering financial incentives for I-66 commuters to start a carpool, start or join a vanpool, catch the bus or participate in a teleworking program. And OmniRide will also offer a new bus route called Haymarket Express Service starting in mid-December.
The Transform 66 Outside the Beltway project will add two express lanes in each direction along a 22.5-mile stretch from Interstate 495 to near University Boulevard in Gainesville. Improvements along the strip include more than 4,000 new commuter spaces in Prince William alone.
Because two-thirds of Prince William residents leave the county to work, OmniRide’s incentives — which started in May — are aimed at incentivizing people to use mass transit to reduce the number of commuters driving alone on I-66.
“We can’t run more service unless we have parking lots,” said OmniRide Executive Director Bob Schneider. “They change the game.”
OmniRide is offering half-price fares for bus routes along I-66, funded by the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, in an effort to mitigate traffic congestion during construction. The lower fares for OmniRide Express and OmniRide Metro Express are in place through 2022, when the Express Lanes are expected to open.
OmniRide is also offering incentives to encourage carpooling, vanpooling or telecommuting. Vanpool Alliance, a public-private partnership that started in November 2013, has 665 vans. Since beginning, the alliance has paid $5 million in direct benefits, said Joe Stainsby, the vanpool program manager.
OmniRide Metro Express buses to Tysons Corner Metro and OmniRide Express buses to Northern Virginia and Washington along the I-66 corridor have seen an increase in ridership since half-fares started in May, said Christine Rodrigo, OmniRide spokeswoman.
“For the four-month period prior to the implementation of the half-fare program average daily ridership on those routes was 1,494 passenger trips,” Rodrigo said. “In the month of September average daily ridership was 1,699 passenger trips.”
Vanpool incentives, which started in October, have resulted in two new vanpools enrolled, she said.
BUILDING THE INFRASTRUCTURE
The Interstate 95 corridor has more “monolithic” commuting routes, whereas I-66 commuters head to more varied destinations, such as Rosslyn, Dulles, Reston and Herndon, said Chuck Steigerwald, OmniRide’s director of strategic planning. OmniRide has a plan for the I-66 corridor.
“For the culture to develop, you need the infrastructure,” Steigerwald said.
Commuter lots are overseen by local mass transit services. OmniRide officials work with Transform 66 representatives to offer advice on what the mass transit service needs in commuter lots and to ensure mass transit is available before the lots open, Schneider said.
The majority of the 27 existing commuter lots in the county are near I-95 — there are 6,845 parking spaces in 23 lots in the I-95 corridor, according to 2016 data from VDOT. Four existing lots in the county near I-66 have a total of 1,422 parking spaces.
That means I-66 will substantially increase its commuter lot capacity once the Transform 66 Outside the Beltway project is complete.
“It’s not just about I-66; it’s about everything that changes inside a community when that happens,” Schneider said. “The word is ‘transform’ 66 and I think they mean it.”
Of the four lots near I-66, the Limestone Road lot near Mile Stone Court in Gainesville and the Cushing Road Lot near I-66 at the Va. 234 bypass are the most used, while the Portsmouth Road Commuter Lot near Williamson Boulevard and the Manassas Mall lot near Sudley Road and Rixlew Lane are the least used, according to 2016 data from VDOT.
Offering commuters mass transit near I-95 has given OmniRide experience in how express lanes can affect a community, Schneider said.
“How can we look at what this [Transform 66 project] will do to Gainesville and Manassas and their growth, and how can we look beyond just what is 66,” he said. “What happens when this makes it much easier to live in Warrenton now? It’s what happened when the HOT lanes emerged; Fredericksburg, [and] Spotsylvania and Stafford [counties] exploded.”
OmniRide is also planning to open a $41 million western facility in late 2020 where bus drivers can start their routes, Schneider said.
The new Haymarket Express Service will start around Dec. 17, Schneider said. The route will travel along I-66 from U.S. 15 to Rosslyn with nine stops.
Del. Danica Roem, D-13th District, said the new bus route in Haymarket is “amazing” for the area.
“I told Bob [Schneider] before I got sworn in, ‘we have to have a bus route in Haymarket,’” Roem said. “But Bob said we need new funding, so the fuel tax was so important.”
During the 2018 Virginia General Assembly, legislators passed bills changing the Virginia motor vehicle fuels sales tax — a wholesale tax that applied to distributors — to a cents-per-gallon tax.
Since July 1, the tax is imposed on each gallon of fuel sold by a distributor to a retail dealer for retail sale in any of the qualifying counties or cities.
The change meant millions more in funding for Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, which operates OmniRide buses, and the Virginia Railway Express, Roem said.
“This funding helps PRTC to not raise fares and now can add service lines,” Roem said.
NEW COMMUTER LOTS
A new 230-space commuter lot in Haymarket is set to open by spring 2019 and a new 960-space commuter lot at University Boulevard near U.S. 29 in Gainesville is set to open in mid-2019.
A new 1,189-space commuter lot is planned to be ready by December 2022 near Balls Ford Road where a new road — Century Park Drive — will connect Balls Ford Road to new ramps with access to the I-66 Express Lanes.
The lot is scheduled to be expanded to 1,535 spaces by 2040. A 2,079-space commuter lot is also set to be completed by the project’s end date. It will have access to U.S. 29 and University Boulevard, and the lot is set to be expanded to 2,500 spaces by 2040.