Rail to Dulles Runs Through Uncertainties

Rail to Dulles Runs Through Uncertainties

Funding for second phase of the project still not finalized.

As cost estimates go up for the first part of the Rail to Dulles project, questions still remain about who will pay for portions of the second half.

Although they project the trains to be running in 2015, there is no official estimate for the cost of the second phase of the project, said Marcia McAllister, spokesperson for the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project.

Last year, the estimate was $2 billion for the second phase of the project, set to go from Wiehle Avenue in Reston into Loudoun County via Dulles Airport. But that was when Phase I was estimated to cost $2.1 billion. Now, the first phase will cost between $2.4 and 2.7 billion and the costs for the second phase are likely higher as well. But the lack of a price tag isn’t dissuading any of the groups set up to start writing checks.

The players have changed dramatically since the funding scheme was developed. Where initially the federal and state governments were set to pay the lion’s share of the funding, both have been dropped from the second phase.

Today, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is poised to pay for more than 75 percent of the second phase of building the 24-mile rail line from West Falls Church to Dulles Airport and on into Loudoun County. The remaining funds will come from Fairfax and Loudoun counties and the Town of Herndon.

OF THE VARIOUS groups, Fairfax County is the one which still hasn’t pinned down it share. The county is paying its share of the first phase of the project by assessing a special tax on businesses along the metro’s proposed route.

It has long planned to pay its share of the second phase the same way, but now those plans are on hold. Such special taxing districts can only be created if the landowners in them agree to the extra tax.

While a group of commercial property owners, called the Western Alliance for Rail to Dulles, began a drive to establish the tax district in 2004, their plans have been overtaken by events.

“We’ve kind of been in suspension while some of these issues resolve themselves,” said Jeff Fairfield, one of the leaders of the group.

To create the tax district, property owners representing at least 51 percent of the assessed value of the land in the corridor must agree to it. Fairfield said his group had managed to get about one-third, or 33 percent of the landowners to agree.

Since the petition drive started, the entire financing structure of the rail line has changed, said Fairfield, noting the disappearance of the federal and state governments from the equation. Additionally, many of the properties have been sold to new owners meaning that the group would likely need to start their petition drive anew.

“The landscape has changed a lot,” Fairfield said.

The biggest stumbling block, he said, is the uncertain future of the toll road. The state and the Airports Authority have been in negotiations for over a year regarding the plan for the state to give the road to the Airports Authority, and for the authority to assume operational control of the entire rail project.

Until that process is finalized, he said the commercial property owners will not be likely to sign on.

Tara Hamilton, spokesperson for the airports authority, said the authority hopes to complete the negotiations by the end of this year.

Fairfield said he does not remain in constant contact with many of the players, and could not gauge the kind of support that the tax district would have now.

Fairfield also wonders if the new taxes that will likely be enacted in the wake the General Assembly’s transportation plan might be used to cover Fairfax County’s share. “The county has to decide if it wants a tax district for Phase II,” he said.

THE OTHER FUNDING partners have a better sense of where their money will come from.

The Airports Authority still intends to pay its share by using revenue generated from tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, said Hamilton.

Herndon Mayor Steve DeBenedittis said that while the town has not been discussing the issue much, he believes that they are still supportive of the plan. He said that the town may use a portion of its hotel taxes to fund its share of the costs.

Loudoun County, too, still wants the rail line, said Board of Supervisors Chair Scott York (I). York said that Loudoun plans to use a portion of its BPOL tax, a licensing fee paid by businesses.