Virginia DOT Hopes People Will Enjoy Bicycling Next to a Noisy, Exhaust-Choked Freeway

When a bike path is added to a highway expansion project, it risks being an afterthought, resulting in a low-quality, high-stress route. Like this one, now in the works in Northern Virginia.

Can you spot the bike path? Image: Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling/YouTube
Can you spot the bike path? Image: Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling/YouTube

When a bike path is added to a highway expansion project, it risks being an afterthought, resulting in a low-quality, high-stress route. Riders, inundated with noise and pollution from cars, end up not using the path. Northern Virginia bicycle advocates fear that could happen to a planned bike path along Interstate 66 in Fairfax County — and they’re asking the state department of transportation to come up with a better design.

In recent years, Virginia has undergone a highway building boom, not by building new expressways but by contracting with private companies to add high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes. The latest plan is to add four new toll lanes — two in each direction — to more than 20 miles of I-66 beyond the Capital Beltway, widening the highway from three lanes in each direction to five.

Many transportation advocates opposed the project, pointing out the folly of expanding highways to cure congestion. Nevertheless, last November Governor Terry McAuliffe awarded a 50-year contract to a private consortium to build it. Before the contract went out to bid, advocates succeeded in getting the state to include a multi-use path and better bus service as part of the deal.

A bike path already exists along much of I-66 inside the Beltway, and the bike path along the wider section of I-66 would connect to Metro stations while getting riders close to Tysons Corner and other job centers. It would also connect with the Cross County Trail and pass near the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, a popular rail-trail across Arlington and Fairfax counties.

“A quarter of the population of Fairfax lives within a mile of this corridor. We ought to be serving them,” says Jeff Anderson, president of the Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling, or FABB. “It’s being shoehorned in because we asked for it.”

Anderson isn’t kidding when he says shoehorned. Widening a highway in a developed area often involves taking nearby land, and I-66 is no exception. Under pressure to keep the takings to a minimum, the project is cramming its 12-foot bike path between a sound barrier and moving traffic. The trail would double as a utility access right-of-way for the highway.

As illustrated by a video rendering from FABB, trail users would be right up next to traffic. Anderson noted that although the state studied the impact of noise and pollution on nearby residents, it didn’t quantify the impact on trail users, who would be even closer to the highway. At the very least, he wants a better barrier between cars and the bike path, like the transparent fence on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River.

Because it’s on the wrong side of the sound wall, connections to nearby streets are limited, and trail users who do brave the path might feel boxed in. But convincing the state and nearby residents to build a path on the other side of the sound wall could be difficult.

“We want the best trail we can get, and we’re cognizant of the neighborhood residents’ concerns. And we think it’s a really heavy lift to get it outside the wall,” Anderson says. “If it’s going to be inside the wall, they’ve got to do everything to make it safe.”

Public meetings on the plan are taking place this week, and Anderson expects feedback to continue over the summer until final design gets underway in the fall. He’s already planning a ride along a nearby bike path with one of the project’s designers to show him what works and what doesn’t.

We’ll see in the coming months if the state is willing to design a bike path worth riding, or if it’s just squeezing it in because it’s required. As Canaan Merchant writes at Greater Greater Washington:

For a trail that could connect hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of neighborhoods, it is critical that we make sure we follow best practices and design trails that are well made, useful, and not just an afterthought meant to get the environmentalists off of VDOT’s back.

“They know how to build good trails,” Anderson says of VDOT. “Why would we want to build something that people won’t use? Let’s build it the best we can.”

  • SteveOffutt

    Thanks for this. There’s a thread on a local discussion board that has a pretty long list of deficiencies. http://bikearlingtonforum.com/showthread.php?11995-22-Mile-Trail-Parallel-to-I-66-Helpful-Video-and-Input-Needed

  • c2check

    Wow, this looks really unpleasant. Even the bike/ped trail along the SF Bay in Emeryville, adjacent to a frontage road on the other side, which is adjacent to I-80, has uncomfortable noise from the freeway. I can’t imagine being walled in right next to a 20-lanes highway.

  • acerttr250

    Here is the test. Get the engineers and political leaders to sign a contract that they will all have their kids and grandkids walk and ride the trail for at least one mile.

    Watch the response.

    This has got to be the stupidest idea in a long time.

  • Southeasterner

    I love videos that show highway improvements leading to efficient flow of vehicle traffic! They should show the reality which will be stop and go traffic in the GP lanes and cars moving at 30 mph in the Express Lanes.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Indeed, I don’t see much different here than what we get from the Bay Bridge trail. It’s ten lanes of traffic and a few feet for people, hard by the road. The only real difference is the sound wall.

  • Bruce Wright

    To be fair to VDOT, the decision to put the trail inside the sound walls was a political one. Residents have the same misguided fears that we hear all the time about new trails allowing bad guys to prey on homeowners. They (residents) put a lot of pressure on elected officials to not have the trail outside the sound walls.

  • Baloo Uriza

    As long as it’s a pedestrian free route that can deal with relatively high running speeds of bicycles, I don’t care. Sometimes you need a bicycle highway.

  • nanter

    Having lived in northern Virginia (a suburban hellhole, thanks to years of misguided policies like this), these cyclists will be riding next to bumper to bumper polluting traffic for the majority of the day (there is no rush hour on 66; it’s more like rush 5 hours). Drivers don’t even open their windows on 66 because of the abysmal air quality. Hope there aren’t too many MIs in cyclists inhaling that toxic brew.

  • Robert P. Eaton Jr.

    ban cars.

    Come ride with me in China any time on my China Deep Thought Cycle Commuter Blog 🙂

  • thielges

    We have several of these freeway adjacent trails in the San Francisco Bay Area. While the noise is bad, the worst part is how the trails mix with the freeway interchanges. In the best situations, the trail ducks over/under the interchange streets along with the freeway. However there are plenty of cases where bicyclists are dropped onto the city streets right at the interchange and need to navigate through a hairball interchange to continue onto the trail. Sometimes the trail switches to the other side of the freeway, requiring a series of lane changes and left turns through heavy traffic that only experienced bicyclists are comfortable with. The outcome is that a nice Class 1 trail that could be usable by a broad 8-80 crowd instead is only useful very experienced bicyclists.

  • douglasawillinger

    How about showing the reality regarding the number of lanes. The project will not provide 9 lanes in each direction, unlike the misleading Streetsblog graphic.

  • whatever_dude

    When does that ever happen? Hello, baby carriages.

  • Baloo Uriza

    Every cycleway that has a separate sidewalk. Common in Oklahoma except on the lowest traffic cycleways.

  • I’m pretty new to the region, but have run along the Custis Trail (the existing path that parallels I-66) multiple times. It’s hardly the most pleasant or serene place, but it doesn’t suffer for lack of use, so clearly the noise and fumes aren’t much of a deterrent. It’s also among the hillier trails in Fairfax County. Granted, the path currently is usually along the extensive ROW in the margins of the highway, built 20′ feet above the cartways, with tree canopy overhead and abundant grass nearby.

    Given these observations, I’m not sure the negative externalities of biking/running along a freeway have much impact, so this widening project won’t people’s psychological relation to the trail that much. What could kill it is the lack of access–essentially turning a multi-user path into a limited access. Unpleasant though it may be, more people will get turned off to the trail by the fact that they have few options for ingress and egress.

  • Is this really a reason that people are arguing? Wow. If anything, this design will make the trail users themselves more vulnerable to predators.

  • Nathaniel Bacon

    Did you look at the picture? The Custis trail is nothing like this. Custiss is raised, probably 20 feet over the highway, and separated by trees most of the way.
    The new design is level with the highway, separated by a low concrete barrier. Not good.

  • Nathaniel Bacon

    What’s worse here is that the traffic is bumper-to-bumper, producing insane amounts of exhaust.

  • If you had read more than my first sentence, you’d notice I made those same observations.

  • phoca2004

    Doesn’t seem too difficult to flip the sound wall to the inside and the chain link fence to the outside of the mixed use path. That way active people get a more pleasant pathway and the neighboring homeowners have a fence separating them from…people.

  • David Henri

    Did I read that correctly – 20 miles long, adjacent to a freeway?
    That’s nothing short of pathetic.
    C’mon, you can do better than that.

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