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Chambers Raise Red Flags over Phase 1

Greater Reston and Herndon-Dulles chambers still on board for rail, but concerns about plan begin to multiply.

Over the past several years, there have been few Dulles rail supporters as forceful as the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce and the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce. But on Dec. 2, members and officials from both chambers expressed concerns about the funding formulas, specifically a uniform tax district, and the decision to end the first 11.6-mile phase at Wiehle Avenue in Reston.

On Tuesday afternoon, the two longtime Rail-to-Dulles cheerleaders jointly sponsored a panel discussion at the Hyatt Reston to discuss the concerns that each membership organization has regarding the $1.5 billion Phase I Rail-to-Wiehle proposal. "We are still very supportive of the Rail-to-Dulles project," said moderator Mindy Williams of the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce. "But we have some areas of concern."

In a Nov. 6 resolution, the Reston chamber, which represents nearly 1,000 area businesses and more than 90,000 employees in the Dulles Corridor, announced that it would support a phased approach to construction with the Herndon-Monroe station, not the much-maligned Wiehle Avenue station, as recommended in the revised supplemental draft of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Like its neighbor in Reston, the Herndon Dulles chamber also favors the interim terminus terminal 2.6 miles farther down the Dulles Toll Road at Herndon-Monroe rather than Wiehle. While neither chamber has directly opposed the idea of a special tax district, both chambers have expressed concerns that the current plan does not fairly or adequately represent those members slated for Phase II construction. The Greater Reston chamber has endorsed a two-phased tax district that would correspond with the phased construction. Panel member Tom Williamson of Terrabrook properties discussed his opposition to a single tax district found in the Landowners Economic Alliance for the Dulles Extension of Rail (LEADER) petition. "I understand the argument that one district keeps costs down for everybody, and I would agree with that if the benefits were also being felt equally," Williamson said. "As news has gotten out, I have become concerned about the inequities of this plan should it go forward. This could be a very acrimonious battle, and it didn’t have to be."

PANELIST PATTY NICOSON, of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association, one of the project’s chief proponents, downplayed concerns of chamber members. "As far as the Phase I to Wiehle, we don’t regard this as anything but a temporary terminus," Nicoson said. "There will be so much momentum that we think Herndon-Monroe will open shortly thereafter."

Pointing to the soon-to-open Air and Space Museum on Route 28 and "recovering economy," Nicoson insisted that businesses will continue to move into the corridor because of rail, "but they know it won’t happen overnight." She added that a single tax district would save $800 million to $1 billion and would "expedite expansion."

Jeff Fairfield, a LEADER board member and a Rt. 28 and Herndon landowner, agreed with Nicoson that the uniform tax district was preferable. Fairfield also tried to convince a mostly skeptical audience that "it never crossed our mind that Phase II would not be built."

"The concerns about the LEADER petition has been overstated," Fairfield, a lawyer, said. "The likelihood of that is exceedingly remote."

WILLIAMSON HAD a far less rosy picture than Nicoson or Fairfield. "I don’t think the economy is starting to recover in Herndon and Reston," he said. "This district is going to seriously hamstring these markets."

BRT proponent and Reston resident Tom Hirst said that the plan would "retard recovery" in the Dulles Corridor. "Raising taxes and tolls will drive businesses out of here," he said.

Another panel member, landowner Al Dwoskin, took issue with LEADER and its petition, saying he never received any correspondence from the group. "I found out in an email from a friend that my property was in this proposed district," he said. "The advocates for the current project have an enormous amount to gain"

Dwoskin said that Tysons Corner landowners could make $1 billion while their counterparts in Reston and Herndon are facing reduced property values and increased tolls. "Almost 45 percent of taxes will be paid by Herndon and Reston property owners," he said. "That seems basically unfair … Rail-to-Tysons shouldn’t be paid for by Herndon and Reston landowners."

JOSEPH RITCHEY, a Reston Town Center broker with Prospective, touched a nerve with the audience when he pointed out that the Tyson McLean Office Park was not included in the special tax district. "Why should we have to pay when we are 1.5 miles from the nearest stop when there is a property that is practically sitting on top of a proposed station that doesn’t have to pay a thing?" Ritchey asked. "That is not the only property that there are questions about."

Dwoskin blamed much of the estimated $1.5 billion price tag on the proposed station alignments. Instead of having four stops loop around Tysons Corner before ending in Wiehle, Dwoskin proposed keeping the rail on the Dulles Toll Road right of way with stops at Rt. 123, Spring Hill Road, Reston, Herndon and on to Dulles Airport. Audience member Ed Kennyson, of Vienna, liked Dwoskin’s proposal. "If we do Rail-to-Dulles entirely in the right of way, construction of this suddenly becomes much more affordable."

Fairfield defended the process. "This is a product of six years of study. It did not just fall out of the sky. There were six sets of public hearings; these aren’t some decrees that came down from Mt. Olympus," he said. "Proposals to tweak come a tad late."

Williamson objected to Fairfield’s characterizations. "This is in response to the draft EIS which just came out. It was that language that was startling and alarming to us," he said. "This cookie-cutter WMATA stuff is not what’s appropriate for Reston."

When Reston chamber member Michael Horwatt asked the panel what the effects of a delay would be, panelists couldn’t agree on an answer. Dwoskin said that having a local tax district on board would be helpful, but not mandatory. "Having a project that goes all the way to Dulles will sell," he said.

Fairfield disagreed. "If the LEADER petition fails … it would be easy for the Federal Government to send that money elsewhere," he said. "Then you are looking at another five or six years down the road."

Williamson, himself a member of LEADER, took issue with Fairfield. "It is hard to believe that it is now or six years later," he said. "I find that argument a little disingenuous."

Later in the program when Fairfield opened the door to possible changes, Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville) applauded the change in tactics. "Where was this all along with LEADER? I am glad to hear about this newfound flexibility, because for so long it has been, ‘take it or leave it," the retiring supervisor said. "Now, all of a sudden, LEADER is open."

"As a lawyer, I know that sometimes negotiations become much more earnest as deadlines approach," Fairfield answered.

Williamson also criticized LEADER’s approach. "I am on the executive committee of LEADER and I haven’t received an email from them in three and a half months. They are supposed to be a LEADER, but they haven’t acted like one," Williamson said. "They didn’t have to put this county and the Town of Herndon in such a crunch."