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Airports Authority: Give It Back

Everyone who knows what the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is, raise your hand.

If you know that the authority owns the land under the Dulles Toll Road, keep your hand up.

Those two bits of information took on new importance in late December when the authority proposed taking control of the Toll Road as part of a bid to expedite construction of a Metrorail line extension to Dulles Airport. The speedier project, however, could end up costing motorists more in tolls with minimal oversight.

If the authority can get rail to Dulles built faster, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Gerry Connolly (D) is supportive. "I think the proposal has a lot of merit worth looking at," Connolly said. However, Connolly cautioned that the authority has little public oversight. "[The Airports Authority] is really not accountable to anyone but the U.S. Congress," Connolly said.

To emphasize his point, Connolly noted that while board members are political appointees, a court case involving former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder (D) established that they may not be removed until their term ends.

The authority owns the Airport Access road Ñ the central lanes used by people going to and from the airport. It also allows the Virginia Department of Transportation to operate the Dulles Toll Road on its property. While the authority owns the land, VDOT owns the road itself.

OVER THE SUMMER, five private companies submitted proposals to take over control of the Toll Road in exchange for covering the state's share of the first phase of the rail to Dulles project. VDOT only advanced four of these proposals to the next phase of evaluation.

The Airports Authority asserts that it would have to approve any agreement with a private company. Something which VDOT concedes is probably true, said Tamara Neale, a department spokesperson.

The first phase, expected to be complete by 2011, would bring a Metro line from West Falls Church to Reston, via Tysons Corner. The $1.8 billion project is to be funded by federal, state and local governments.

The proposal encountered some trouble last year when the projected cost increase made it seem that the line would no longer qualify for federal funding. That problem was solved for Phase I.

Phase II, which would take the line from Reston to Dulles Airport and on into Loudoun County, is also to be funded by federal, state and local governments, in addition to the Airports Authority. However, the availability of federal funding for Phase II remains an open question.

THE AIRPORTS AUTHORITY suggested it would take over the state share of Phase I, assuming the federal funding comes through. The authority would then take over the state and federal share of Phase II.

No change would be made to Phase I in terms of cost or timetable, said Tara Hamilton, an authority spokesperson.

However, Phase II could be built more quickly. The current plan would hold up design for Phase II until federal funds could be pinned down.

With the authority guaranteeing funding for Phase II, design could continue without a pause, speeding the overall project. The authority could not provide an estimate of how much faster it might be, said Hamilton.

The local portion of Phase II funding, however, is not certain. Phase I's local share is being paid through a surcharge on the property taxes of commercial landowners along the corridor.

A group is working to develop a similar tax district along the Phase II portion, but no official agreement is in place.

The authority would also assume existing debt on the Toll Road, which was about $53.2 million on June 30, the end of the last fiscal year, Neale said. The debt is due to be paid off by 2016.

The price for this would be regular toll increases on the road. The authority proposal would increase tolls every three years, starting in 2010 to match the rate of inflation, compounded annually.

This differs from the current standard, and that proposed by the private companies, which require the approval of the Commonwealth Transportation Board prior to a toll increase.

The authority would keep funds for the airports' operation and Toll Road's operation separate. It would then dedicate all of the Toll Road revenues to improvements in the corridor, including building rail.

Oh, you can put your hand down now.