“It doesn’t make any sense” was a common refrain heard throughout the afternoon at the annual Dunn Loring Improvement Association picnic on Oct. 11.
As some people munched on recently grilled hot dogs and burgers and kids ran around the Dunn Loring Green, which is located at the intersection between Sandburg Street and the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) trail, a cluster of residents stood hunched over a map depicting the infrastructure that crisscrosses through the Dunn Loring-Merrifield-Vienna area.
The map shows the preferred alternative plan for expanding Interstate 66 that was proposed by the Virginia Department of Transportation and presented to the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Sept. 15.
The suggested expansion would expand I-66 to two toll lanes and three regular lanes in each direction, but many Northern Virginia residents argue that the plan will have more drawbacks than benefits, disrupting neighborhoods and levying greater expenses on locals and taxpayers without actually doing much to relieve the metro area’s traffic problems.
“You have to balance that need for relieving congestion with the significant impact on the environment and the community,” Dunn Loring resident Deanna Heier said. “We understand that there’s a lot of congestion on I-66, and we want a solution as well, but there have all along been alternatives that we feel should be considered.”
Heier belongs to a community group called Transform I-66 Wisely that formed in January after news of VDOT’s proposal spread to Dunn Loring, Vienna and other towns potentially affected by the expansion. The group gives residents a platform for voicing their concerns about the project and an official avenue through which they can hold discussions with VDOT and local government officials.
In Dunn Loring, many residents’ worries center on a potential widening of the Gallows Road Bridge, which passes over I-66 at an interchange near Stenwood Elementary School. In addition to cutting into some of the land around the school and moving up the sound wall that normally separates the highway from the neighborhood, the widening of Gallows from four to six lanes would push out the homeowners who live in the five residences in Stenhouse Place, which is next to Gallows. The five houses are shaded in red on the map diagramming VDOT’s preferred alternative.
Marcia Hook, one of the Stenhouse Place residents, says that her frustrations with the project stem less from the prospect of having to move in 2017, when construction on the expansion is supposed to begin, than from the lack of communication from VDOT.
“We’ve actually still never received formal notice from VDOT that our home is likely to be taken, and it’s kind of a big deal,” Hook said, explaining that she and her neighbors learned that their homes might be taken from friends of friends who attended a public meeting about the project and saw their names on a map.
Transform I-66 Wisely has seen some progress in negotiations with VDOT officials, such as the agreement to alter construction so that it doesn’t interfere with the ballpark and track field at Stenwood Elementary School.
However, residents express continued concern with the project’s potential environmental effects and the lack of consistency in VDOT’s approach to I-66 inside versus outside the Beltway, questioning why the department hasn’t considered a rail option to suburban areas like Manassas and Haymarket. The expense of the added hot lanes also raised eyebrows, especially since VDOT currently plans to fund them through a public-private partnership that would charge a private corporation with building the lanes but would also allow that corporation to take any profits.
Several local government officials, including Virginia Delegate Mark Keam (D-District 35) and State Senator Chap Petersen (D-District 34), attended the improvement association picnic to discuss the project with their constituents.
Keam said he adamantly opposed the project and suggested that he and Petersen might work with other delegates to find a legislative solution.
“None of the people that I represent here will get benefits from the project,” Keam said. “The people that benefit are the ones that drive from farther away, but our neighbors consequently will end up with all the damage.”
VDOT has three more public meetings on the project planned with the next one taking place at Oakton High School on Oct. 19. The Commonwealth Planning Board will then vote on whether to approve VDOT’s preferred alternative plan the following week.