Deal reached for I-66 expansion, tolls

McLEAN, Va. (AP) -- Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican legislators reached a compromise Wednesday on plans to expand Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway and charge tolls on the highway during rush hour.

McAuliffe and legislative leaders announced that a largely Republican effort to block tolls on I-66 inside the Beltway will be dropped. In return, McAuliffe agreed to immediately allow for widening the highway on the eastbound side.

The administration had initially planned to delay any new lanes for five years to accommodate officials in heavily Democratic Arlington County who oppose widening I-66.

Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey issued a statement Wednesday expressing disappointment with the compromise because it calls for immediately widening the four-mile stretch of eastbound I-66 between the Dulles Connector Road and Ballston. But she said she appreciated McAuliffe's efforts on the project and the fact that the widening will occur within the existing right of way and that the project includes provisions for expanded mass transit and local use of toll revenue.

Currently, I-66 inside the Beltway is open only to carpoolers during rush hour, making it the only stretch of interstate highway in the country with such a restriction. The compromise lets solo drivers pay a toll to use the road.

The deal paves the way for an even further expansion of "Express Lanes" throughout northern Virginia, in which people can pay a toll, or carpool in groups of three or more, to gain access to dedicated lanes that bypass regular lanes frequently choked with traffic. Express Lanes are already in place on the Beltway and Interstate 95, and plans are moving forward to add them to I-66 outside the Beltway.

But plans to extend the concept to I-66 inside the Beltway proved more controversial, and became a significant issue in last year's legislative elections. Republicans campaigned against the toll plan, saying it was unfair to implement tolls on an already existing highway without adding capacity.

Supporters of the toll plan said the campaign against them was misleading. Because the highway is currently open only to carpoolers during rush hour, they said that converting the highway to Express Lanes did nothing but give drivers an option that they now don't enjoy. Drivers who don't want to pay the toll can do as they've always done and use an alternate route; Express Lanes merely give drivers a choice to use the road if they are willing to pay, they said.