(Updated at 2:15 p.m.) The first segment of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s planned shared-use trail along I-66 has been completed.
State and Fairfax County officials will celebrate the milestone today (Wednesday) with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m., followed by an inaugural bicycle ride or walk on the finished section, which starts east of the Vienna Metro station and extends to Cedar Lane near Merrifield.
The segment includes a tunnel under Nutley Street, one of several below-grade crossings planned for the 11-mile, mostly 10-foot-wide trail being built from Gallows Road in Dunn Loring to Route 29 in Centreville.
More portions are expected to be finished later this month, including a crossing at an I-66 entry ramp at the Nutley Street interchange and a segment from Blake Lane to Route 123 in Oakton.
“The 66 Parallel Trail and new bike and pedestrian access across the I-66 bridges supports VDOT’s commitment to providing multimodal travel options to ‘move more people — not just vehicles,'” VDOT said in a statement to FFXnow.
VDOT’s private partner I-66 Express Mobility Partners (I-66 EMP) and construction contractor FAM Construction built the 66 Parallel Trail — a name chosen by a Fairfax County survey — as part of the Transform 66 Outside the Beltway project, which added 22 miles to the I-66 Express Lanes.
Including sidewalks being added on bridge crossings over I-66, the project will deliver 18 miles of new pedestrian and bicycle facilities, according to VDOT.
The trail’s inclusion in the highway widening project came after a campaign by local pedestrian and bicycling advocates, including the nonprofit Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling (FABB).
“The new 66 Trail will significantly improve east-west connectivity for people walking and biking in the corridor that does not exist today,” said former FABB President Sonya Breehey, who’s now the Northern Virginia advocacy manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “The trail opens up the opportunity to walk, bike, roll to the Metro, schools, parks, restaurants, retail, and other places throughout the corridor.”The design process for the trail was contentious, as cycling advocates pushed to keep it outside the I-66 soundwalls. However, adjacent homeowners objected to giving up part of their backyards, fearing a loss of privacy and green space.
The final design placed approximately three miles directly next to the highway, while about eight miles will be behind a noise barrier or have no noise barrier.
Breehey calls the trail’s placement inside the soundwalls an “unfortunate compromise,” but VDOT mitigated some concerns by elevating some portions above the highway and putting others behind a 50-inch concrete barrier.
In addition, most trail crossings will be overpasses or underpasses, rather than at street level, current FABB President Bruce Wright noted.
“I think once a trail is built and it’s used, people understand the value and maybe the residents…either didn’t understand or had a misperception about what would happen,” Wright said. “…Having said that, we think VDOT did a good job, when they had to put the trail next to the highway, of keeping cyclists safe. In some places, the trail is a little bit elevated to get above the roadway to make that separation, and where possible, it is on the residential side of the highway.”
Construction on other parts of the trail is projected to continue through this summer, including on temporary paths along Virginia Center Blvd north of the Vienna Metro station and on the east side of Monument Drive between I-66 and Government Center Parkway in the Fair Oaks area.
Permanent pedestrian and bicycle facilities are planned on those roads, but they’re being built separately from the main 66 Parallel Trail, which VDOT says is on track to be completed by early August.
The Vienna Metro improvements, including a cycle track, shared-use path and road diet, are set to begin construction in late 2024, while work on the Fair Oaks segment won’t start until 2025.
While the long timeline isn’t ideal, Wright says the trails will be a welcome addition to Fairfax County’s network, providing connections to the Washington & Old Dominion Trail and the recently completed Mount Vernon Memorial Highway Trail to the south.
“That will be a 70-mile loop if you include the W&OD trail,” Wright said of the Mount Vernon trail. “But riders could use the new I-66 trail when that’s complete to then make a little bit shorter loop…That’s going to be, I think, interesting to a lot of cyclists who want to do longer rides.”
Traffic on the expanded I-66 Express Lanes has grown since tolling began on Sept. 24, according to I-66 EMP Corporate Affairs Director Nancy Smith. The lanes are averaging 36,000 vehicle trips per day outside the Capital Beltway, totaling over 1 million unique customers as of April.
“We anticipate usage of the 66 Express Outside the Beltway to continue in line with expectations,” Smith said.
Though VDOT has touted the lanes as providing faster, more reliable trips, the initial launch was hampered by confusing toll signage, and new roundabouts at Nutley Street have befuddled many a Vienna-area driver. Work on the interchange is expected to be completed late this spring.
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