This week, U.S. Department of Transportation, Virginia, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Fairfax and Loudoun county officials met again in secret to review Dulles Rail Phase 2 financing plans. They are to meet next on Sept. 23, intending to sign a Dulles Rail Phase 2 Memorandum of Understanding regarding their respective funding obligations.
Before that happens, public hearings must be held in Fairfax and Loudoun counties to discuss potential impacts of the new funding plan on local taxpayers, review proposed MOU provisions and seek a more balanced rail financing plan. MOU signing should occur only after overall rail feasibility is demonstrated and Phase 2 final cost estimates have been determined.
Dulles Toll Road users, “earmarked” to pay 75 percent of Phase 2 capital costs, have been excluded from any U.S. Department of Transportation meetings held since June. My requests to USDOT that DTR user representatives attend have been ignored. Some negotiation matters may merit an Executive Session, but, based on provisions of “open government” regulations adopted by USDOT, it seems illegal to have excluded the public from all of the USDOT meetings.
Since joining the Dulles Corridor Users Group in 2008, I have attended dozens of MWAA Board and Board Committee Dulles Rail meetings plus dozens more in Fairfax County and Loudoun County. Most significant matters regarding rail financing and other important MWAA decisions were made in Executive Session. House Transportation Committee Chairman Delegate Joe May two weeks ago expressed his concern about the climate of secrecy that prevails at MWAA. One committee member commented: “Where there is no sunlight, there is suspicion.”
No comprehensive public meeting or hearing has been held on overall Dulles Rail Phase 2 plans and costs since MWAA signed its 2006 agreement with Virginia to take over the Dulles Toll Road and build Dulles Rail. The MWAA toll increase “informational meetings” in 2009 and 2010 were conducted in a manner to preclude full public input to the decision process. MWAA may hold additional meetings on Dulles Rail in the coming months but, unless we force the matter, they will limit or preclude public input to the overall plan of finance.
The Dulles Corridor Advisory Committee, which includes the chairmen and county executives of Fairfax and Loudoun plus other bureaucrats (but no public members), was established under the Virginia Department of Transportation’s permit and operating agreement that gave MWAA a 50-year authority to operate the Dulles Toll Road. MWAA’s website shows:
“The DCAC’s function is to provide advice to the Airports Authority on any changes to DTR toll rates, and on issues related to the management, improvement and expansion of the Dulles Corridor. The DCAC is to meet at least two times a year, unless its members otherwise agree.”
Contrary to the Virginia agreement, the DCAC only met once in both 2007 and 2008 and last met on Nov. 18, 2010, in a hard-to-find location in Tysons Corner. Chairman [Charles] Snelling told the public members present: “You are allowed to observe but cannot participate in our deliberations.” Despite requests earlier this year by Loudoun County Board Chairman Scott York for a DCAC meeting, MWAA has not responded to date.
MWAA is not the only entity failing to provide answers on Dulles Rail issues. What are Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his transportation secretary, Sean Connaughton, doing about the Dulles Rail funding problems? So far, no actions have been taken by Richmond.
At the September 2010 Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance Tysons Corner forum to review progress in significant transportation projects, Sean Connaughton was asked: “What does the state plan to do to help fund transportation improvements needed in Tysons Corner?” Connaughton smiled, did not answer, and passed the microphone to Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova.
In November 2010, McDonnell was asked on the WTOP radio program “Ask the Governor”: “What alternatives to Dulles Toll Road tolls for financing Phase 2 of Dulles Rail have you considered?” McDonnell said he would have Connaughton investigate the matter. Nothing has been heard from the governor in nine months.
In January 2011, it was suggested to Connaughton in Richmond that the governor allocate $1 billion from his $4 billion transportation funding plan to help pay for Dulles Rail Phase 2. No response was ever received. In May 2011, after a Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce meeting, the secretary was asked to have Virginia provide credit enhancement for MWAA’s bonds. And a one-word answer: “No.”
Since Dulles Rail environmental impact studies were conducted in 2002 to 2004, demographic, housing and economic growth rates have declined in Northern Virginia. Why has the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation not demanded that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which will operate the Silver Line, prepare new rail feasibility studies or updated rail ridership, operating revenue, expense and subsidy forecasts? Why have agencies responsible for the project not demanded evaluation of alternative funding and financing approaches requiring Silver Line Metrorail users to pay at least part of the $7 billion capital costs?
Why have DRPT, USDOT and MWAA ignored the Transit Service Design Guidelines adopted by Virginia in November 2008, based on USDOT guidelines, which indicate a population density of 6,667 persons per square mile or greater is needed to be “supportive of heavy rail?”
For the Dulles Corridor, population density averages under 3,500 per square mile and is under 2,500 per square mile in eastern Loudoun County.
What happens if (some say when) MWAA defaults on its Dulles Toll Road revenue bonds after many drivers take local roads to avoid paying tolls projected to reach over $10 each way during the next decade and $20 or more each way in the longer term?
Dulles Toll Road users paid over $850 million in tolls to Virginia between 1984 and 2008. Over $600 million of that money was surplus revenue over and above the capital, financing and operating costs of the Toll Road. What has Virginia done with our money?
Why have the governor and his transportation secretary worked hard to keep tolls below $2 on the new Portsmouth Tunnel — providing TIFIA loans to keep interest expenses on that project low — but remained silent on helping the Dulles Corridor with the far greater cost and economic problems being created by the $10 billion to $15 billion in Dulles Rail financing costs?
State election races will provide the public a chance to seek answers on Dulles Rail. Ask candidates if they support the planned Dulles Toll Road toll increases? If not, what do they propose to do to help the public by decreasing rail costs instead of serving the interests of Dulles Corridor landowners, their lawyers and others who will profit directly from the rail project?
Rob Whitfield, Dulles Corridor Users Group, Reston