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Good, Bad and Ugly In Virginia Budget

The Virginia Senate finally adopted the State Budget on a vote of 21-19 last week. It now goes to the Governor for his amendments.

Some parts are good, some parts are bad, and some parts are ugly. One part is missing:

The original Senate budget, which passed 35-4 with widespread support, inserted $300 million in additional construction funding for Dulles Rail. That funding matched the $150 million initially proposed to "buy down tolls" for northern Virginia commuters — a proffer that resulted after months of lobbying by Northern Virginia lawmakers. With that money missing, the State Budget is a failure.

Is this just a regional issue? Not hardly.

Dulles Airport connects Virginia to the world. With non-stop flights to the capitals of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, it is the nerve center of our international travel. It has driven the unprecedented growth in western Fairfax and Loudoun Counties.

Dulles Rail, the rail line connecting the Airport with the Nation’s Capital, has been stuck in the planning stages for too long. It was already "old news" as a state objective when I joined the Regional Commission as a young City Councilman in 1998. And yet it languished for years, as the Region fought through various recessions and other projects took priority.

During that time, Dulles Rail was the focus of criticism and controversy, particularly in the failure to tunnel through Tysons Corner or implement a Bus Rapid Transit system as an intermediate step. I’m aware of these criticisms, because I made them.

But let’s not lose sight of the Big Picture. Dulles is Virginia’s access portal to the 21st century. Along with the ports of Hampton Roads, it represents the focal point of our international trade and commerce. That trade is growing.

That brings us to the 2012 special session.

Heretofore, the Commonwealth has done little to support this critical state project, which is now completing "Phase I" of its construction. Instead, the project has been funded by local landowners, local governments, the Federal government and commuters in the Dulles Corridor.

Seeking to change this dynamic, the Senate — after significant debate — added the additional $300 million in state money last month. Note that this is barely 6 percent of the overall project cost, which is more than $5 billion.

Yet it’s critical, especially as local governments like Loudoun County must decide in the next few months to commit their own money to Phase II of the project, which will link the Rail Line to the Airport and into Loudoun.

Is the project perfect? No. Is the Metro Washington Airports Authority, the operating authority, perfect? No. But no project ever is. (Read a history of the intercontinental railroad, the most important infrastructure project in U.S. history, which was riddled with corruption).

But Virginia says it’s broke. Where can these funds come from?

Just look at projects like the widening of Rte 460 in Southside Virginia, which is not supported by a single jurisdiction in southeast Virginia yet will cost $500 million. In fact, the City of Portsmouth told us recently they don’t want "this very costly capital project."

Why are we dumping money in a project nobody wants, and ignoring Dulles?

The Budget remains a unique opportunity to fix this situation. While transportation projects are not typically itemized in a biennial budget, it’s not unprecedented. What is unprecedented is the lack of state support for a project that will bring billions in trade and revenue to the Commonwealth.

The Governor can still win this battle with a stroke of his pen, by making a fiscal commitment to Dulles Rail when he amends the State Budget. It’s all in his hands.