Remembering the Bitter Fight Against I-66 in Arlington

In the late '70s, the construction of this major commuter route elicited fierce protests, and even arrests.
Woodlawn Yearbook 1978 I 66 Protest Policeman Leslie Cohen

An I-66 protest photo from a 1978 yearbook at H-B Woodlawn in Arlington (Photo by Leslie Cohen)

In April 1978, a 19-year-old Arlington man was prowling around a construction site along present-day Interstate 66 when a building superintendent took note and reported him. Subsequently charged with trespassing, the man had reportedly been caught filling a construction vehicle’s gas tank with sugar. Fresh spray paint was found on a crane at the site as well. 

The vandalism wasn’t an act of teenage boredom, but rather one of the many protests against the construction of I-66 that occurred in Arlington throughout the ’60s and ’70s. In addition to garden-variety letter-writing and petition campaigns, protests sometimes took darker or cleverer turns, such as the lobbing of paint-filled balloons into construction zones or the planting of new trees in cleared areas. 

At one point, activists began collecting the “Build 66 Now” bumper stickers that were in circulation and cut off the “w” so they read “Build 66 No.” 

First conceived in 1956, I-66 was designed to connect the far-flung towns of the Shenandoah Valley with Washington, D.C. Many viewed the new highway as welcome progress, but in Arlington, it was widely seen as an environmental disaster in the making, with initial proposals calling for razing houses and tree cover to make way for eight lanes of traffic. Sections of the highway had opened farther west in the 1960s with little opposition, but all that changed when construction began in Arlington in the 1970s. 

I 66 Construction Lloyd Wolf

I-66 under construction in 1979 (Photo by Lloyd Wolf)

By then, Vietnam War and civil rights protests were commonplace, and the nation’s first Earth Day in 1970 had exemplified growing concern about the environment. Citizens organized, showing up at county board meetings, writing letters and picketing on street corners. They formed at least two grassroots groups, including one called the Arlington Coalition on Transportation (ACT) and another called Continued Action on Transportation. 

One of those activists, Rob Lundquist, was a Yorktown High School student when he began picketing and petitioning against the interstate. “I had friends from Swanson [Junior High] whose houses were taken, and some of the fields where we used to play are now under concrete,” says Lundquist, who now lives in Asheville, N.C. “It felt like a David and Goliath thing.”

To a certain extent, the protests worked. By the time the last section of I-66 opened in Arlington in 1982, its profile had changed from an eight-lane behemoth with no restrictions to a four-lane road with high-occupancy requirements at rush hour. “The road got built,” Lundquist acknowledges, “but we influenced the outcome.”

Categories: Local History