The 66 Parallel Trail came along just in time for Mike Harris.
“I’m very jealous of my friends that live in Arlington and Alexandria,” Harris says.
He had joined them on exhilarating bike rides using a trail network there that spans and connects communities. He had marveled at how easy it was to get from place to place.
“I got the taste for it. I loved it,” Harris says. “I want to be able to use my car sparingly and use my bike more. I want that freedom.”
He resolved to commute from his home in Fair Lakes to Tysons, where he works as a website developer.
Harris sought help from the Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling, a nonprofit that promotes cycling for transportation. A volunteer mapped out a 13-mile route for Harris along streets and paths between his home and his office, but he said the route seemed unsafe.
“I had to either decide to go on a sidewalk or be in the street, and I was very nervous about that,” he says.
Then he heard about the trail that runs parallel to Interstate 66.
“I was like, ‘This is the time. This is the time I can finally commute in to the office,’” Harris says. “It was finally a moment where I said, ‘I can do this.’”
The new 66 Parallel Trail is 18 miles of straight, flat path; rising, falling, curving swoops; tunnel-like passages through on- and off-ramps; wide lanes across bridges; and new on-street bike lanes. The main portion is 11 miles long. The remaining 7 miles wind through interchanges and open into neighborhoods along the way. Its design reflects principles that prioritize safety and accessibility. Despite its practical and utilitarian intent, solutions to knotty design challenges created sections of the trail that are often fun to pass through.
For now, the trail runs from Gallows Road in Dunn Loring to Braddock Road in Centreville, but not all paths are finished. As of early September, the Virginia Department of Transportation expected most trail segments would be open in early fall. There are plans to extend the trail to Bull Run Regional Park in Prince William County. If the trail gets the level of use that transportation planners expect, it could lead many more Northern Virginians to forgo cars in favor of trips by foot and bike.
“It really does provide a lot of additional connectivity east-west through the heart of the county,” says Lauren Delmare, program manager for the Active Transportation Program at the Fairfax County Department of Transportation. “We are connecting to the Fairfax County Parkway Trail, the [Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park] trail, and the [Gerry Connolly] Cross County Trail, which are three significant trails in the county.”
Before the 66 Parallel Trail opened, Delmare says, the interstate was a barrier to pedestrians and cyclists. “I’m excited about the little neighborhood connections,” Delmare says. “You can travel a quarter mile, half mile, a full mile down the trail and connect to another little spur to another community that previously you might have had to go significantly out of your way to get to.”
During a bike ride near the Vienna Metro station, Jeff Anderson, a member of FABB, noted the trail’s positives. “It clearly is going to open up doors, not just to get people into the city or into Arlington or Vienna or Tysons, but just between the local places they want to go to,” he says.
At the Nutley Street–Interstate 66 interchange, Anderson adds, “They’ve completely redesigned it for everyone’s use. It slows traffic down, allows cyclists to get through safely. I think it’s cool. Engineers must have loved designing this.”
He had just pedaled through three tunnels and glided through long curves to go from the north side of Interstate 66 to the south side.
“The loopy interchanges are great,” Anderson says. “The first impression by a rider will be, ‘Why? Why am I doing this?’ But at the same time, they’ll be doing it with a smile on their face. They’ll think it’s fun, and they’ll realize afterwards, ‘I never had to interact with an automobile.’ It’s safe and fun at the same time.”
Budget limits, safety concerns, space constraints, public comments, and accessibility requirements drove most design decisions, according to Susan Shaw, megaprojects director and design-build program manager for VDOT.
A yearslong public input process revealed differences of opinion about where to place the trail along the sections next to the interstate. The result: a plain, functional, flexible trail, much of it between the sound walls and the interstate. Designers elevated portions to put some distance between the roadway and trail users, but long sections are at road level. Road noise can be overwhelming at times, and exhaust fumes can taint the air.
“The road noise is insane,” says Harris, the aspiring bike commuter from Fair Lakes. Even so, the trail opened his mind to new ways of getting around, and he says he hopes it does the same for others.
“We should be able to empower our people to bike, walk, whatever they can do to get to work versus having to use traffic and tolls to get to the office,” Harris says. “That’s the beauty of being empowered to just get on the road and not have to be reliant on a vehicle just to get around.”
Transportation flexibility really is the point of the Parallel Trail, and that is a reflection of the agency that oversaw its design and construction.
“We are the Department of Transportation, not the Department of Highways,” Shaw says, referring to the name the department used until 1986. “Multimodal is very much a part of our culture and policy.”
The opening of the trail fulfills part of Fairfax County’s long-term plan to give county residents safe ways to travel without using cars. A trail running alongside Interstate 66 had been envisioned since the 1970s.
“A significant portion of the people that live in Fairfax County are relatively close to I-66,” says Reston resident Bruce Wright, president of FABB, which advocated for the trail and took part in the design discussions. Wright says the trail opens new ways to get things done for people who have a car-dependent mindset.
“We want to broaden their perspective,” Wright says. “We have a philosophy that everybody who wants to in the county should be able to make short trips by bike and walk, so that people who are close to a trail are able to go to the store, to be able to go to Metro, to be able to just take their normal trips where they don’t have to carry large objects.”
The trail is expected to be heavily used eventually, but in its early days, some trail users will be there simply to explore and discover.
That’s what Harris did early on as he traced his future route to work.
“The sweeping paths and the culverts were absolutely really cool,” Harris says. “It definitely changes the pace of it and makes it just a lot of fun.”
A couple from Reston, Katie Schaub and Christian Contreras, cycled on the 66 Parallel Trail for the first time on a sunny August morning. They parked on a neighborhood street and rode near and through the Route 123–Interstate 66 interchange.
“I was impressed with the access of just coming off of the neighborhood and immediately there was the access trail there,” Schaub says. “The little intersections and intertwines are actually really cool.”
“As a civil engineer, I’m always a big proponent for pedestrian movement and how to mediate or remedy urban sprawl,” Contreras says. “And I think [the trail] accomplishes that, especially making it a lot safer for pedestrians to be near the highway and around it.”
Having the trail in place has already led Fairfax County leaders to prioritize other trail projects that will complement and connect to it, Delmare says. Many of the projects will be small, such as improving crosswalks or adding short links between trails. “The 66 Parallel Trail is such a big, big regional connector,” Delmare says. “There is a real connection versus just a line on the plan of what we want to do in the future. Now it’s here, and now it’s even more important to bring people to it.”
More on the Project
The 66 Parallel Trail is part of the Transform 66 Outside the Beltway Project in Northern Virginia. The massive Transform 66 project is redesigning and reworking the I-66 corridor by adding Express Lanes, replacing bridges, reworking interchanges, adding and improving park-and-ride lots and improving bus service.
The easternmost part of the Parallel Trail extends from the Dunn Loring Metro Station west to U.S. 50; part is on streetside paths. At the interchange at U.S. 50, the trail leaves Interstate 66 and winds west along streetside paths, some new and some existing, for more than 2 miles before intersecting Fairfax County Parkway north of the interstate. From Fairfax County Parkway, the trail extends west to Braddock Road, where U.S. 28 crosses Interstate 66.
A private partnership called I-66 Express Mobility Partners funded construction of the trail, which was built by FAM Construction, a joint venture of Ferrovial Construction and Allan Myers.
Feature image by Will Schermerhorn