- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Washington region is one of the nation’s Internet hotbeds with technology companies making their homes along Northern Virginia’s Interstate 66, which includes the busy Dulles Corridor.

I-66 is a 65-mile freeway linking Washington with Front Royal and Interstate 81, but the highway also serves as a vital commuter route, connecting the District with growing Virginia suburbs.

Visitors often are confused by the lack of signage on the I-66 corridor. Driver confusion settles in right from the start, according to the book “Interstate 66 Guide.” After crossing the Potomac River via the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, a sign indicates that I-66 east continues along the Potomac Freeway.

The Potomac Freeway is only that short freeway between the Roosevelt Bridge and U.S. 29/Whitehurst Freeway. There are no signs to reassure drivers they are on course after leaving the bridge. There is no sign signaling the end of the Potomac Freeway. Green guide signs only refer to the Whitehurst Freeway. However, from U.S. 29/Whitehurst Freeway, I-66 west is signed as heading out on the Potomac Freeway.

Expansion of this often-congested stretch of road through Arlington County, between Rosslyn and Dulles Connector, is subject to some contention. Arlington officials have expressed concern over potential fallout from any I-66 traffic relief efforts. Unresolved issues also involve high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and toll lanes.

U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, says the highway can be expanded for only $18 million within the confines of the existing “footprint,” land already owned by the state.

“The benefits of Interstate 66 expansion will also benefit adjacent streets and neighborhoods with potential relief,” Mr. Wolf says.

The Round 7.0 Cooperative Forecast recently released by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) predicts that by 2030, the number of jobs in the region will rise by 1.4 million, an increase of 49 percent.

During the same period, the region’s population is expected to increase by 2.1 million people and more than 821,000 households. The forecast says the greatest population growth is expected in Northern Virginia.

Current plans call for extending the I-66 corridor westward and adding lanes in both directions.

The I-66 corridor was added as a high-priority corridor in 1991 and amended in recent transportation bills. Legislation facilitates adding mileage to the corridor.

Current I-66 construction near Catharpin, Va., will add a sound wall.

Ryan Hall, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, says a 3.8-mile stretch of I-66 is now being widened between Sudley Road and the Prince William Parkway. An HOV lane and a conventional lane will be added in both directions.

Construction on this expansion began in August 2004 and is expected to end this October. The cost is $37 million.

“Hopefully this will help ease the congestion in this area,” Mr. Hall says.

Even with extension and expansion plans, as technology companies continue to build and lease along the I-66 corridor, people will continue to flock to the region to fill the jobs found there. As industry grows and development follows, traffic congestion on I-66 will only get worse.

Paul Sherman, founder of Potomac Tech Wire magazine, predicts rougher roads ahead for commuters.

“Ten years ago this was a government town. Now there are more technology workers in this area than government workers,” Mr. Sherman says. “No one ever in their wildest dreams would have expected that to happen so quickly.”

In 1940, I-66 first appeared on local thoroughfare plans along the so-called Fairfax-Bluemont Corridor utilizing much of the former Washington & Old Dominion Railroad right-of-way. Hearings, studies, litigation and funding issues kept it from opening to traffic until 1982.

The history of Virginia’s Department of Transportation recorded that a Transamerica Freeway following the route of present-day I-66 was an idea hatched by Wichita businesses in the early 1900s as a means to bring more traffic to southern Kansas. That route would connect Fresno, Calif., with Washington. The businessmen brought their idea to their politicians, and the politicians managed to get the idea listed as a high-priority corridor.

To the west of I-66, the land is rural. To the east is Conway-Robinson Memorial State Forest and Manassas National Battlefield Park. To the north is Haymarket, where large residential projects, including Heritage Hunt, Piedmont and Dominion Valley are under construction.

But you needn’t travel that far to find award-winning examples of modern development. Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor won a national “Overall Excellence in Smart Growth” award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA praised its 21 million square feet of office, retail and commercial space, more than 3,000 hotel rooms, and 22,500 residential units for creating “vibrant urban villages” while minimizing automobile pollution and poor land use.

The Washington Office of Economic Development reports that vacant office and residential buildings are being renovated along the I-66 corridor to become Web companies that will cement the region’s place as the nation’s high-tech capital. High-tech companies are targeting the region for relocation because MAE East, the regional switching point for the Internet, is in Vienna.

Virginia’s Relocation Directory boasts that Northern Virginia has so many technology companies it is referred to as the “Silicon Valley of the East.”

The best-known of these technology companies is America Online, but the list also includes Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) and Parsons Brinckerhoff, among others.

The federal government is a large employer in Northern Virginia, as well.

Development along the I-66 corridor is mixed-use with storefronts, restaurants and cafes, offices and apartments. Nearby neighborhoods offer condos, town houses and single-family homes.

Current development within the I-66 corridor is primarily commercial.

The I-66 corridor has many university resources, satellite campuses and research centers: George Washington University, George Mason University, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia.

As traffic along the corridor grinds along, plans for mass transit projects — including the long-awaited Metro service to Tysons Corner and, eventually, Washington Dulles International Airport, also are moving slowly forward.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has five Metro stations in Fairfax; five more are scheduled to be built by 2011.

The I-66 corridor is more than a highway to homes and jobs, it is a conduit to much of the best the region has to offer: retail centers, outdoor recreation, beautiful state parks and Civil War battlefields.

The I-66 corridor never sleeps.

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