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Votes

Second Tax District?

Getting Back on Track

The western landowners in the Dulles corridor can pursue creating a special tax district of their own to pay for the Rail-to-Dulles project, but phase one of the project can not be extended into Herndon due to financial constraints, said key officials involved in the project at an informational meeting with the Herndon mayor and Town Council last Tuesday, Jan. 6.

The argument did not seem to sway council members from withdrawing their conditional support of the project.

"I don't see that changing," said Councilman Dennis Husch. "What this is is a justification for that first proposal."

IN EARLY DECEMBER, the Town Council passed a resolution that supported the creation of a special tax district to fund the Dulles rail project, which would extend Metrorail from West Falls Church to Dulles Airport and onto Route 772 in Loudoun County, contingent on a number of changes to the proposal, including expanding the phase one construction out to the proposed Herndon-Monroe station rather than its current terminus point at Wiehle Avenue in Reston.

"One and half billion dollars gets you up to Wiehle. Wiehle is the limit we can operate with the number of cars, funding and distance to the yard for service, which is Falls Church," said Shiva Pant, the government relations officer for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. "We would need additional rail cars to get to Herndon-Monroe, which means we would need an additional yard."

Pant said extending the first phase to Herndon-Monroe would push the project beyond the $1.5 billion spending limit suggested by the federal government. He said the additional costs would come from the need to add more rail cars to the line and creating a yard for the maintenance and storage of the added cars, as well as the need for additional tracks.

"Herndon was always looked at as a station site. It was never an issue as to whether you needed it or not," Pant said. "As for the recommendation to delay or defer some stations. Even if we didn't build one or two stations in Tysons Corner, we'd still need to lay the track, electrify the track … and we would be essentially retrofitting a station."

Pant said going back and adding a station after the fact creates limits in hours the work can be done because the track is in use during the day, thereby prolonging the construction time. He said a station costs about $100 million to construct and retrofitting a station adds 30 to 40 percent to the original cost.

Members of the council, however, did not seem moved by the explanations.

"How many additional cars are needed? I don't understand, we're talking about extending it another mile," said Councilman Michael O'Reilly. "I don't understand about the [additional] tracks, this is the first we've heard of them. How much do you save by omitting a station at Tysons? And I haven't heard, do we actually have federal funding? There was an issue raised that if we extend the project to Herndon-Monroe, it wouldn't fall within the model the feds have to obtain funding."

Karen Rae, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said her federal counterparts would never sign off on skipping stations during initial construction and going back to fill them in.

"Taking stations out, the Federal Transit Administration would not support as good management because they know there is demand [in Tysons Corner]," Rae said. "It's not considered good project management when you're trying to control costs and this creates a gap where you know there is demand."

THE ONE BRIGHT SPOT, however, is that it may be possible for two special tax districts to be created. Initially, a petition, which needed the Town Council's approval, proposed one district covering the length of the corridor, where businesses and commercial property within the district's boundaries would be taxed an additional 22 cents in property taxes. That figure would rise to 29 cents after about 10 years and would be phased out after 30 years. The property owners also would have had the ability to increase the tax, should overruns on the rail project warrant.

Western-corridor property and business owners objected to the plan because it did not guarantee the second phase of the project would be completed, even though the entire district would be charged the additional tax. In addition, the provision that called for the property owners to vote to continue paying the tax left many feeling the eastern-corridor owners could stop paying into the fund after the rail project was completed in their area.

The $3.4 billion project is proposed to be funded in two phases with the federal government picking up half the tab, the state paying 25 percent and Fairfax County, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and Loudoun County paying the remaining 25 percent. The failed tax district proposed to break the project into two phases: phase one consisting of Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, then phase two has the rail continuing from Wiehle Avenue to Loudoun County. The bulk of the county's expenses will be incurred during phase one.

AT THE TIME the petition was subjected to public hearings in late November and early December, many of the western property owners called for two tax districts. At the time, the suggestion was shrugged off as too expensive. However, the idea has gained new life.

In an e-mail, Peter Johnston, senior vice president of Boston Properties, one of the largest commercial landowners in Herndon, confirmed several western property owners have met with county officials about the possibility of creating a second district. He said, however, that so far there has been no attempt to organize a group to create the needed petition and garner the 51 percent support it would need before the Board of Supervisors could grant approval. Johnston said he expected another meeting between the owners and the county to take place sometime within the next two weeks.

Len Wales, the county's assistant financial director, told the council the original creator of the petition, a group called LEADER, is in the process of recirculating a new plan that calls for an eastern tax district only, which does not include Herndon. He said the same would need to be done by a western group. In addition, he said the earliest a western district could possible begin collecting the tax would be fiscal year 2006.

The plan seemed to tentatively satisfy the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is providing the right-of-way needed to complete the project.

"Our concern has always been with what is the best use of the median. If we get into this, we want assurances rail goes all the way through to the airport," said Jonathan Gaffney, vice president of communications for the airports authority. "We wouldn't want there to be approval of two districts … unless they were activated around the same time and something collected on the west end and held in escrow or something. We want something that makes us comfortable that rail will go all the way through."

Mayor Richard Thoesen said his talks with property owners indicate the western portion is willing to beginning collecting the tax as soon as possible and place it in an escrow account.

Besides the perceived inequity of the original tax district, council members also took the time to object to the state's plan for raising the funds for its share.

"That 25 percent from the state is going to be garnered from a Toll Road increase. A block of that toll is going to come from people in the western district. Part of it should go into that [second tax district] reserve. People in the western part should not fully fund the eastern portion," Husch said.