At first glance, the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority's (MWAA) proposal to use tolls to fund rail to Dulles sounds promising. However, McLean Citizens Association (MCA) president Susan Turner needs some more convincing, and she is not alone.
"I think we need to ask the Airport Authority some pointed questions about how they intend to finance their proposal to construct the Dulles Metro line," said Turner after last week's MCA board of directors meeting.
MWAA has submitted a proposal to the Commonwealth of Virginia to assume responsibility for the ownership and operation of the Dulles Toll Road, and to use revenue from the Toll Road to fund the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project. The state has also received similar proposals from four private interests — Cintra USA, Dulles Express, Dulles SmartLink and Dulles to D.C. Loop. However, the details of these proposals are confidential.
Despite concerns that tolls would be insufficient to adequately fund rail to Dulles, the McLean Citizens Association's board of directors voted last week to ask the state to expedite its review of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority's (MWAA) proposal.
"The major attraction of the MWAA option is that all of the Toll Road collections would be kept in the Dulles Corridor, and there would be no leakage as there would be with a private company," said transportation committee member Robin Bates. "The Airport Authority has, we're convinced, a good track record with working with large projects, and it has already worked with Metro. A private company would not be subject to the same degree of accountability."
In a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) statement on the MWAA proposal, Metro General Manager and CEO Richard A. White said "the Airports Authority clearly recognizes the importance of the rail-to-Dulles project to the airport itself and to the region as a whole."
"How the Dulles project should be managed and operated is a decision the leadership of the Commonwealth of Virginia must make, since Virginia remains the sponsor of the rail-to-Dulles project," said White.
While MCA Board members generally agreed that the MWAA proposal could potentially be a viable option for the future of the Dulles Toll Road and the planned Dulles Corridor Metrorail project, several people expressed doubts about its financial calculations.
MWAA proposes to harness its ability to issue tax-exempt bonds and the revenue stream from the Dulles Toll Road to provide the Commonwealth's share of funding for both phases of the Dulles Metrorail extension, and to service the outstanding debt associated with the Dulles Toll Road. In addition, MWAA would reinvest a portion of the Dulles Toll Road revenues to finance improvements to the Toll Road, other roads, sound walls and traffic management infrastructure within the Dulles Corridor.
"The county believes that the Airport proposal will greatly increase the chances of seeing funds for Phase 2 so that the entire Metrorail extension could be completed earlier," said Bates.
MWAA has proposed to contribute $361 million of Dulles Toll Road funds to Phase I of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project, and $1.409 billion to Phase II. However, in 2005, the Dulles Toll Road only brought in $43.8 million in revenue, so MWAA would have to issue bonds to live up to its promises. MCA transportation committee member Mark Zetts wondered whether this was even feasible.
"In 2005 they got $43 million from tolls," said Zetts. "They plan on using tolls over 50 years to pay for this, and they plan on raising the toll rate every three years tied to inflation rates which are about 9 percent. They need $3.5 billion ... the thing about this is that of $3.5 billion you have 65,000 people responsible for this, and that is a big bill for even 125,000 people, which is twice that."
SUSAN TURNER WAS SKEPTICAL about the fact that the MWAA proposal would mean that commuters who use the Dulles Toll Road would be funding the construction of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project.
"So we're asking them to pay for this massively expensive project that they probably won't even be using?" asked Turner. "What kind of burden are we putting on people on the Toll Road? To me this is like a salvage operation — we're getting desperate now, so let's take desperate measures."
Mark Zetts also questioned the concept of using tolls to pay for rail.
"You realize that all the people paying for this aren't even riding the Metro, they are driving cars?" asked Zetts.
Bates noted that MWAA was simply looking for the MCA's support of the consideration of the proposal, and argued that while the MWAA proposal is not without its flaws, it might be preferable to any of the private interest proposals.
"Unless you kill the whole project," said Bates, "But if you don't want Metrorail, I'm not quite sure what to say."
MCA Board member Wade Smith said that "the devil is in the details," and that it was difficult when "we don't know a lot about the other proposals."
"There is no person in Richmond paying one cent toward this," said Smith. "The problem is that this is not being shared by the other state residents in Virginia. It is a myth to say that the state is paying for any of this."
Despite these reservations, the MCA Board voted in favor of "an expeditious exploration of the MWAA proposal by the Commonwealth of Virginia," and agreed on a recommendation that "the Commonwealth develop an appropriate draft agreement with MWAA for public review."