Home Transportation I-66 Multi-Use Trail Design “our only chance to do this right”; Will...

I-66 Multi-Use Trail Design “our only chance to do this right”; Will Poor Local Leadership, NIMBYism Screw It Up?

Will Fairfax County Cement Its Poor Environmental Reputation?


Back in August, I posted this letter from 19 members (Republicans and Democrats) of the Virginia General Assembly, calling on VDOT to “express our opposition to the current design of the shared use path on Interstate 66 (I-66 Trail) proposed by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and I-66 Express Mobility Partners (EMP)” and specifically demanding that VDOT “redesign this project to place the shared use path on the outside of the sound walls, ten- feet-wide with two-foot-shoulders on either side, or 14-feet-wide, and extend the shared use path the entire length of the widening project.”

As Greater Greater Washington reported back in June, “one positive aspect” of I-66 widening (a really bad idea overall) is that it will “include a new [bike] trail that effectively runs [from] Gallows Road to Centreville,” and which will “help build out Fairfax County’s bike network, providing connections to the W&OD trail, the Cross County Trail, and others…connect[ing] to the Custis Trail, which runs parallel to I-66 in Arlington, and the result will effectively mean one of the longest trails in the region.”

That should be great news, except for a couple problems. First, the way this project is currently planned, parts of the multi-use trail would run “along the highway side of the sound barrier, the big wall that separates 66 from where people live,” putting trail users “closer to high-speed traffic and farther from the neighborhood connections, which likely means far fewer people would be willing to get out and use it.” Also, putting bike riders next to traffic would, of course, expose them “to more air pollution on the highway side of the wall and force users to breathe in all the extra exhaust coming from the traffic of a widened highway.” Not acceptable.

So why on earth would anyone design a brand new bike trail so that it will be wedged between a busy highway and a sound wall? Seems crazy, but there MUST be reasons, right? I was curious, so I submitted Freedom of Information requests to VDOT and to Fairfax County. The VDOT responses weren’t particularly helpful, but there was some interesting material in the Fairfax County emails.

The main thing I learned is that the seemingly bonkers bike trail design mentioned above can be attributed to a few main factors: 1) the rush to widen I-66 as quickly as possible (presumably for political reasons, at least in part), as is abundantly clear from the content and tone of emails by Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne; 2) strong/vocal opposition by several homeowners along the I-66 expansion path to having a bike trail in their “back yards”; 3) lack of effective political leadership at the local level, such as from Fairfax County Supervisor Linda Smyth (Providence District), whose district includes a looong stretch of I-66, including where the road is being expanded outside the beltway. So, it’s not surprising that Supervisor Smyth is involved – as she should be! – but it IS surprising, reading the FOIA’ed emails, how biased she appears to be against bicyclists.

For instance, it’s interesting that Supervisor Smyth claims that none of the Virginia elected officials signing the letter to VDOT “have constituents who would be impacted by the trail.” Does Smyth has no clue who these elected officials are, or who uses bike paths?!? Because what she’s saying is completely false. In fact, almost all the legislators – Sen. Barbara Favola, Del. Tim Hugo, Sen. Jeremy McPike, Del. Rip Sullivan, Sen. Janet Howell, Del. Randy Minchew, Sen. Jennifer Wexton, Sen. Dave Marsden, Del. Ken Plum, Del. Kaye Kory, Del. Patrick Hope, Del. Vivian Watts, Del. Jennifer Boysko, Del. Jim LeMunyon, Del. Charniele Herring, etc. – who signed the letter to VDOT are in districts that either touch directly on I-66 or are located a few miles north or south of I-66. Plus, the concept that nobody in Smyth’s district would use a cool, convenient, well-designed new bike path is just…laughable, frankly.

Also, you’ve gotta love how Smyth ignores the fact that more cars on the road (in part because of fewer cyclists using the bike path due to poor design) would adversely impact her district. And you’ve REALLY got to love how she blows off the many emails/letters/etc. she got from pro-cycling individuals and groups (I included examples, below), while apparently accepting arguments by the ANTI-cycling and “anti-tax” individuals and groups – even advising them on how to fight back, as you can see in one of the FOIA’ed emails below. For instance, how about how Smyth notes – to a constituent who’s hostile to having the bike path on his side of the sound wall – that the “bicycle advocates have been hard at work…[pushing] the advocates’ position for moving the trail to the residential side of the noise wall.”

It’s important to emphasize, by the way, that the idea that bike trails bring more crime or lower property values has been repeatedly debunked. For instance, see here (“studies in various parts of the United States seem to show that concerns about trails lowering property values and increasing crime are unfounded”) and here (“This study concludes that crime on bike paths is minimal”; “Opponents to bike path and trail projects often say that property values will be adversely affected but there is not much evidence of this.”) and here (” studies show that crime rates are lower on trails than in other environments…Burglary near trails was extremely rare, more so than other crimes.”).

The bottom line with agreeing to the bizarre concept of wedging a bike/pedestrian trail in between highway traffic and a sound wall is that: 1) it’s horrendously bad design (e.g., being closer to the vehicles means more cancer-causing pollutants sucked into cyclists’ and pedestrians’ lungs; it’s also not going to be attractive for cyclists or pedestrians to use); 2) it sets a terrible precedent, as VDOT is setting itself up for future Virginia highway widening projects also caving and settling for a badly sub-optimal design (needless to say, the process shouldn’t work this way); 3) it reinforces and validates criticisms of Fairfax County as being unfriendly/lacking focus when it comes to environmental protection, encouraging biking and walking, etc.; and 4 ) it’s unclear why they can’t just narrow the lanes by a few inches at each choke point instead of taking more land.

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) sent me the following statement (bolding added by me for emphasis), with which I strongly agree.

The segments of I-66 with the trail on the wrong side of the soundwall are not likely to be rebuilt for another 40 years and this is our only chance to do this right.  I am disappointed that a handful of homeowners’ desire to view a soundwall instead of a bike trail seems to trump the health, safety and convenience of thousands of Virginians.  

Experience around the world has shown that when high-quality cycling alternatives are creative, people take advantage of them.  We will never develop a true multimodal transportation system or begin to alleviate our congestion so long as Fairfax County and VDOT continue to view cycling facilities as afterthoughts, luxuries, or exotic curiosities.  

In sum, there’s really no excuse for not building a world-class (attractive, safe, aesthetically pleasing, convenient, etc.) bike path along with the expansion of I-66. In coming months, local officials need to work with state officials and others to get this right before the region ends up making a mistake that will cause harm for decades to come…

P.S. There were lots of emails opposing the HOT lanes and/or supporting better transit, smart growth, etc. For instance, see below.

  • Save Our Libraries

    Linda Smyth is an outstanding public servant who represents her constituents admirably well. Your pathetic attacks on her only reflect your desperation and the lack of merit for your case. The folks who live in Linda’s district right against the sound wall are NOT going to relent in our opposition to a bike path forced through our back yards. No amount of bully or name calling of “NIMBIES” is going to intimidate us into surrender.

    • scavok

      Life lesson #1: Don’t buy property that backs up to a damn interstate

      Life lesson #2: If you ignore lesson #1, don’t be upset when your property is taken for the greater good, ie eminent domain

      • Save Our Libraries

        Lesson #1 – don’t expect to take the green space from our communities and encroach on our elementary school ball fields for your bike path without a fight. Our children matter.

        • Wait, you seriously support the “Green” candidate yet you don’t understand that your children require a livable planet, which won’t exist with continued fossil fuel burning? Alrighty!

          • Save Our Libraries

            What bullshit. I have not owned a car since 1980 and only use mass transit. I have been a vegetarian since JR High . I am 60 this year. I testified repeatedly against the entire 66 widening – which is destroying another 100 acres of trees . Fewer trees and more pavement for fossil burning planetary death inducing vehicles is not a solution. The bike path will destroy what little green space is left on our side of the sound wall. I’d rather have trees and green space than a paved fenced bike path in the few feet between me and the wall. I am not anti bike . I am pro green. My next door neighbor is an avid cyclist who rides his bike to work. He is just as opposed to the bike path being jammed right next to our homes. Your attempt to spin our opposition as anti Green is laughable.

          • Good that you haven’t owned a car and are vegetarian (same here). I also was against I-66 widening and despise cutting down trees. So no difference between us there. My only difference is whether to put the bike path inside or outside the sound wall.

          • Save Our Libraries

            There is not room in our area to put it on our side of the wall. The Wash Post reporter came out and looked and agreed there is no room. The bike path will cut into our elementary school ball fields paid for by parental fundraising and render the sub standard size. Our school board member opposes it. Our state senator and state delegate oppose it. Pissing on an amazingly hardworking dedicated person like Linda Smyth is only further alienating this community from any sympathy to the bike lobby.

          • Just FYI, I’m not part of any “bike lobby,” whatever that is exactly. However, I think it’s completely nuts to jam a bike trail between highway traffic and a soundwall.

          • Save Our Libraries

            And it is no less nuts to cram it against our homes and at the expense of our elementary school. Trying to tag the bike path onto the 66 project was an insincere sop toward pretending this is a multi-modal project when it is really all about cars. There is not room for a quality bike path running parallel to I -66. Already there are portions like along Sutton by Oakton HS which will not be along 66 at all. Our portion also needs to be re-routed if you don’t want it on the highway side. Because it is NOT going to be crammed in my community. We are 100 % opposed. Our entire HOA is opposed. All of our elected reps oppose. Because they all understand there is not enough room. The blind bullying push to force this on us regardless of community wishes and no matter the degradation to our neighborhood school and green space reflects the moral bankruptcy of the “bike lobby” – whether you identify with their obtuseness or not. They shall NOT pass.

      • Save Our Libraries

        Lesson #2 – Don’t try and cram a bike project on top of a highway project which is already destroying 100 acres of trees and taking homes and property for a mindless expansion of asphalt and a fossil fuel burning planet destroying car culture. There is not enough room.

    • The Jill Stein photo says it all.