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Airports to Enter Road Business

Airport Authority will take over toll road to try and ensure Dulles Rail project.

The project to extend Metrorail service to Dulles Airport and beyond took a big step forward this week, but the project is still not guaranteed.

The Metropolitian Washington Airports Authority and VDOT on Monday set the framework for transfer ownership of the Dulles Toll Road.

In exchange for the Toll Road, the authority, which owns the land under the road, will fund the state's share of the first phase of the rail to Dulles project, and the state and federal share of the second phase. The project must still secure federal funding for the first phase, and local funding for the second phase.

The authority owns the land under the toll road, while the road is currently owned and maintained by VDOT. Under the agreement, the authority would take over complete control of the toll road, including its existing debt. Funds generated from tolls would be re-invested in improvements along the toll road, particularly funding the Dulles Rail Project.

Funds collected by the state for construction of the rail line (up until the date of a final agreement) will be transferred to the authority, after costs are subtracted.

Del. Ken Plum (D-36) said the agreement is a good deal for Northern Virginia citizens. "This is great news. It brings certainty to the completion of the Dulles Rail project," he said.

But members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors expressed "deep displeasure" at the deal, saying it leaves out a mechanism for officials from Fairfax and Loudoun counties to provide input on the project's construction, maintenance and operation.

"Our citizens who use these facilities must have their interests protected," said Chairman Gerry Connolly (D).

The Board voted unanimously Monday to ask the airports authority and Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer to amend the agreement to create an advisory panel of Northern Virginia elected officials.

"If this is supposed to be a partnership, then there has to be a forum for input from local governments," said Fairfax County Executive Tony Griffin.

Griffin added that if Fairfax County is not given a voice, then "we don't have to contribute a nickel."

IN DECEMBER, the airports authority suggested it would take over the state share of Phase I of the rail to Dulles Project, (which could be as much as $550 million) assuming the federal funding comes through.

An open question is what would happen to the agreement if the federal (or other) funding does not materialize.

"A lot of those details are being worked out," said Tamara Neale, a spokesperson for VDOT.

Phase I of Dulles Rail will extend Metro service form the existing West Falls Church Station to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, including four stops in Tysons Corner. It is projected to be operational by 2011.

Phase II will go from Wiehle out to the airport and into Loudoun County. No change would be made to Phase I in terms of cost (See related story this page) or timetable. The authority will take over the federal and state share of this phase.

Under the plan, Phase II could be built more quickly. The current plan would hold up design for Phase II until federal funds could be pinned down. Phase II is projected to be operational by 2015.

With the authority guaranteeing funding for Phase II, design could continue without a pause, which could speed up the overall project.

The local portion of Phase II funding, however, is not certain. Phase l's local share is being paid through property taxes from a special tax district made up of commercial landowners along the Phase l corridor.

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

Phase II of Rail to Dulles would go along the median of the Dulles Toll Road, including three stops between Wiehle Avenue and Dulles Airport, a stop at the airport and two more stops in Loudoun County.

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, said Neale. The debt is due to be paid off by 2016.

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

According to the terms of the agreement, the authority will also be obliged to incorporate HOT lanes "and/or other congestion pricing methods" along the length of the toll road, as long as these lanes do not interfere with the rail project.

HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes would allow carpools to ride for free, while single-occupant vehicles to pay a fee to use them. These fees could vary, using a dynamic toll, charging more for drivers to use them during times of peak congestion.

The authority is also mandated to consider private proposals to operate the road and which could include allowing private companies to develop and operate the HOT lanes.

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.

These proposals envisioned funding the state share of Phase I and a portion of the share of Phase II. However, since the airports authority owns the roadbed, they would likely have needed to approve of any agreement.

These private proposals are no longer being considered. "We're going to return the proposals, and also the [application fee]," Neale said.

The agreement is preliminary. Both parties will continue to hammer out details and the agreement calls for final negotiations to begin within 30 days.