The Washington D.C. area deals with some of the worst congestion in the United States. In 2016, a transformation began to address the bottlenecks on one of region’s busiest routes – Interstate 66 between the Capital Beltway (I-495) and Gainesville, Virginia. Today, drivers experience 8-10 hours of congestion on a roadway travelled by up to 200,000 vehicles each day. With population growth and vehicle traffic expected to continue to grow dramatically through 2040, the solution to this problem calls for innovation, expertise and a talented team that is up to the task.
I-66 Express Mobility Partners (or I-66 EMP) was selected by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2016 to design, build, operate and maintain what is now known as the “Transform I-66 Outside the Beltway” project. With a total value of $3.6 billion, the project is one of the largest Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) projects underway in the US. I-66 EMP will recoup its investment over the life of the 50-year contract via managed lane toll revenue.
Fortunately, the Commonwealth recognized the benefits and creativity that P3s could bring to its most vexing transportation challenges, and the state policy on P3s was modernized to enable faster deployment of large-scale “Mega Projects.” As we negotiated with the Commonwealth throughout 2016, I knew we were the right team with the vision, talent and experience to take on this Mega Project!
The project features two managed lanes and three general purpose lanes in each direction, 4,000 park and ride spaces, 11 miles of shared-use bicycle-pedestrian trails and expanded regional transit options. It is estimated that once complete, the project will move 2,000 to 4,000 more people per hour through this busy corridor during peak travel times.
In my 15 years with Cintra, I have had the good fortune in taking part in several unique infrastructure projects in the US and around the globe. I knew we could apply innovative solutions and expertise in managed lanes to I-66. The main lesson I have learned in my experiences with the company, is that with the right team, and we have a great team, you can accomplish anything that may seem complicated and challenging at the outset!
Who is I-66 Express Mobility Partners?
Cintra is the lead partner of I-66 EMP, which includes other leading global private infrastructure firms Meridiam and APG. Our design-build contractor is FAM Construction, a joint venture between Ferrovial Construction and Allan Myers, a regional highway construction firm. Together, these organizations have provided us the strongest possible foundation for our team. Drawing from the deep talent pools within Cintra, Ferrovial and our partner organizations, we assembled a strong staff that hit the ground running at the end of 2016.
At the outset, three milestones were identified that we committed to achieve. The first was the early delivery almost 1,000 parking spaces, which we completed in 2019 at the University park and ride lot. This facility provides approximately 2,000 parking spaces and helps reduce congestion by encouraging ride-sharing and public transportation. New bus transit routes from this facility provide new options to reach the Washington Metro subway system, and destinations such as Washington DC and the Pentagon. The second milestone was completed on schedule in November 2020 with improvements to the Route 28 corridor, a north-south state highway that intersects I-66 and serves Dulles International Airport. This included the removal of four traffic signals near I-66 that has allowed traffic to flow more naturally at the interchange. Our most important milestone will the opening of the Express Lanes in late 2022, and I am confident our team will achieve this on schedule.
What do the residents in the areas around the project think?
Imagine if you were performing maintenance on an aircraft while it is in flight. That scenario is similar to the challenge of rebuilding a busy interstate highway while ensuring the continuous flow of traffic. In addition, major segments of the I-66 construction work are directly adjacent to residential areas. We have worked closely with a broad range external of stakeholders and had close to 300 meetings with these groups prior to the pandemic. The interests of these groups have ranged from local communities, homeowner groups, environmental groups, business groups, historic preservation advocates and the cycling community, just to name a few. These stakeholders know that we take their need to be heard seriously and we have been able to address many of their concerns. In fact, in our 2020 public opinion survey, 80% of residents in the area either supported our project or believed it was necessary, and approximately 50% of respondents felt I-66 EMP was doing a good job minimizing construction impacts.
Even with the challenges of 2020, we continued our community outreach via video conferences and telephone calls, and we have a database of almost 8,000 area residents who receive regular project updates. Late last year, we even held “virtual town hall meetings” and more than 500 people attended online. Last month, the Washington Post ran a prominent story entitled “I-66 is Expanding Amid a Pandemic, and Toll Lanes are Two Years Away. Commuters Are Already Seeing Changes”, so we know our progress is being noticed!
We have a great team that communicates and listens to the community and in many cases, we’ve made adjustments to the project to address their concerns and needs, which has built trust and support. It has been very interesting to see how everyone, from elected officials to members of the public, are very engaged. They worry about things we haven’t seen in the past and their perspectives have been so valuable to us. The community knows that we don’t just focus on the road itself, and that we know this is where they live and work, and they share our vision of a safer, more reliable travel experience.
How has 2020 impacted I-66 Express Mobility Partners?
As with any largescale project we anticipated a few challenges during five years of construction, however none of us expected a year like 2020. I am fortunate enough to be part of the amazing team we have assembled. While I’ve always had full faith in our team’s ability to deliver quickly and safely, I’m very proud of how our team was flexible and adapted to a new environment. In early 2020 as the pandemic spread, our small, close-knit team of around 15 to 20 employees transitioned to remote work. And we identified opportunities with FAM and VDOT to accelerate work to take advantage of the lower I-66 traffic volumes we saw in the first phases of the pandemic.
Once we had a solid plan to protect our employees, we reopened our offices last Summer. Luckily, our office has enough space to work while social distancing. We have strict rules about masks, social distance and sanitizing hands. Recognizing the challenges of working through a pandemic, we adopted the slogan “Getting You There Safely”, and we even distributed I-66 EMP face masks with this message!
We are very hands-on, and we value the role personal interactions play in driving collaboration and innovation, so adapting to a remote environment was a difficult adjustment. We overcame this with a can-do attitude. Looking back on the past year, how we met the challenges of 2020 is just one of many of the reasons I am so proud of our team.
The Road Ahead
As I write this, our contractor and their subcontractors have more than 1,700 workers in the field each day making significant progress across the entire 22.5-mile corridor. It is a credit to everyone involved at VDOT, EMP, FAM Construction and the hundreds of subcontractors that the construction works are continuing at a good pace despite of the pandemic. If you work as a team you can achieve anything. The current global situation is bigger than our project, and at the end of the day we have great professionals focused on achieving our milestones together by delivering a state-of-the-art facility that will serve the needs of this region for generations to come.