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Dulles Rail in Crisis?

Rising costs, station choice and ideology sew discord rolling into Phase 2.

First of a two-part series.

In the space of two months, the handling of the Dulles rail project by the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority has come under a major legal attack, a challenge by a senior member of Congress, the angry criticism of the governor of Virginia and has outraged the members of the Fairfax and Loudoun Boards of Supervisors.

-- On April 6, the MWAA voted to select an underground station design at Dulles International Airport that will cost an estimated $325 million more than the competing above-ground plan, raising the Phase 2 cost of the $6 billion project $1 billion more than previous estimates.

-- The governor of Virginia and the supervisors of Fairfax and Loudoun counties angrily attacked the MWAA and said that the Virginia partners in the project will not pay the additional costs.

-- On April 14, two users of the Dulles Toll Road sued the MWAA in Federal Court challenging its constitutional right to collect tolls, the second lawsuit on this issue in recent years. The current funding plan calls for motorists who use the Dulles Toll Road to pay for nearly 60 per cent of the rail project, some $3.7 billion.

-- On May 10, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that would make it easier to replace members of the MWAA, increase the authority’s size and increase the number of Virginia members from five to nine persons. Wolf claims the current MWAA board has "lost sight of its primary mission of serving airport passengers and residents of the surrounding communities."

MWAA has stumbled on other issues this year. In March, seven members of the MWAA board voted informally to hire Nathaniel Ford, currently chief executive of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, at $375,000 a year to be the new chief executive of an authority that operates two airports as well as the rail-to-Dulles project. He had no airport experience and it was only learned after the vote that that he owed $75,000 in back taxes. The search for a chief executive continues.

Only last week, the MWAA Dulles rail management team got into a major fight with West Falls Church citizens groups and several members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors trying to get zoning approval to build a "control station" on Fisher Avenue. The WMAA won the vote only on a technicality of zoning law, but testimony at the meeting disclosed that MWAA chose one site in 2007 and held it for four years before deciding it was not suitable. Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) called the MWAA’s behavior during the weeks of debate over the location "arrogant."

One key issue that has dogged the rail project is its reliance for financing on tolls from the Dulles Toll Road. In 1984, when the road opened for traffic, tolls were used to pay for operations and support $57 million in debt to finance the 16-mile road. Using the tolls to fund the rail project could be an example of "mission creep."

Then, in 2005, the first of two crucial developments occurred. The tolls were raised in May to finance a bond issue for the Dulles Rail project — a move the lawsuit asserts was unconstitutional because, if the tolls are not used solely for the road, it becomes a tax and only officials elected by the people can level taxes under both the Virginia and U.S. Constitutions.

At almost the same time, the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority took over the road as a device to secure bonds for building the new Dulles corridor rail.

According to a report by the Tollroadsnews.com, a national electronic newspaper covering toll-charging entities throughout the United States, the estimates of toll levels’ impact on traffic use changed sharply between 2005 and 2009.

In 2005, the Wilbur Smith Associates reported to VDOT, which then ran the Dulles Toll Road, that "a $2 toll would maximize revenues." Wilbur Smith added, however, that "toll rates cannot be increased without bound. At a high enough price, potential customers will find other ways of completing their journeys and will not pay the higher toll."

By 2009, Wilbur Smith Associates took a new view of its income potential in a report to MWAA, characterizing Dulles Toll Road as being in a corridor of high income people who would place a high value on saving time and said "the long term economic and demographic outlook is very favorable."

"Revenue soars under the 2009 forecast along with steeply higher tolls," the Tollroadsnews reported.

The actual use of the road dipped slightly in 2008 primarily due to the slowing of the economy.

Now with billions in rail construction on the line, MWAA is faced with a dilemma. It needs to raise tolls to pay for Dulles rail, but in doing so, MWAA may put its primary source of funding at risk.

MWAA took over operation of the road from the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2005. Until that time MWAA’s expertise had been in airport management.

Though called the Dulles rail project, the real impetus for getting it underway some 40 years after the airport was opened was the extraordinary growth created by the Dulles airport in Fairfax and Loudoun counties. Reston, Herndon and Tyson’s Corner were villages and farmland when Dulles opened.

Now to drive to Dulles from the Capital Beltway is to pass endless rows of giant corporate buildings and vast expanding communities.

The principle role of the Metro line will be to carry residents from those areas to the Pentagon, Washington and beyond.

At a hearing on the new rail line, former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) said airline passengers would only make up some 7 percent of the riders of riders when it is built. He is quoting an estimate by Dulles Corridor Users Group, which is often critical of the MWAA.

The estimate may not be far off. Maryland’s Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) has had its own rail station for years and is served by MARC and Amtrak and Baltimore light rail. The airport reports that 99 percent of its passengers use bus, cab or private car to reach BWI.

A slightly higher percentage of the BWI workforce uses rail, and it is estimated at Dulles that a significant portion of the 13,000 airport workers will use the Dulles Rail.

To attend a MWAA meeting in its crowded little conference room at the north end of Reagan National Airport is to begin to comprehend the enormity of MWAA’s task and its struggle to bring organized management to bear on its projects.

The room is packed with the board’s employees: police and security experts, landing rights experts, airport management experts, personnel experts and construction company experts.

On the day the MWAA selected the higher priced Metro headquarters, the meeting room was so crowded the authority put dozens of interested parties in a separate meeting room a floor away.

The atmosphere suggests that managing two of the most active airports in the United States 23 million passengers passed through Dulles in 2009 and 17 million through Reagan and running a $6.7 billion rail construction project has overtaxed a body virtually unchanged since it was created 25 years ago.