Responding to President Barack Obama's call for federal agencies to speed infrastructure development through more efficient environmental reviews, the Federal Transit Administration issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on March 15.
The transit administration news release claims changes proposed will dramatically cut red tape and improve transparency for certain transit projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, and: "will put Americans to Work More Quickly, Revitalize Communities."
The transit administration "anticipates that, for certain transit projects, the streamlined NEPA review process would be five times faster." As an example of transit projects which do not have significant environmental impacts, the transit administration cites "projects to be built within an existing right-of-way where transit or other transportation already exists."
Although the transit administration proposal is well intentioned, the fundamental problems with the Dulles Rail approval process result from the lack of accurate engineering cost estimates and faulty economic and financial forecasts — which are used to justify potential ridership levels and growth in rail service demand.
Areas to be served by Dulles Rail are significantly less densely populated than communities served by the present Metrorail system. This folly has resulted from the failure of those responsible at federal, state and local levels to demand current objective analyses of overall project feasibility. This problem has been compounded by the stubborn refusal of the agencies involved — particularly the transit administration, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — to allow any transparency, public input or oversight for most of their actions and decisions during the six years since MWAA was appointed by Gov. Tim Kaine (D) to build the rail project.
The $10 billion-plus capital costs for the original 103-mile Metrorail system were mostly funded by federal grants. The massive debt structure proposed for Dulles Rail will be mostly on the backs of toll road users. Including required infrastructure costs in station areas in Tysons Corner and on the Dulles Corridor, more than $10 billion in mostly local taxpayer money will be needed in addition to more than $15 billion in tolls during the next 50 years to pay debt service on MWAA's high interest rate junk bonds.
In Loudoun County, supervisors have taken time and money to evaluate the potential fiscal impacts of Dulles Rail Phase 2. Loudoun County has posted detailed information about Dulles Rail on its website for public review. Loudoun supervisors have asked numerous questions of staff.
By contrast, most Fairfax supervisors, to date, have buried their heads in the sand claiming they will minimize the burden to toll road users, and the Silver Line will be an economic bonanza. An OPM attitude pervades most county staff and supervisors. Wait until WMATA asks taxpayers to fund the $13.3 billion in replacement costs for the existing Metrorail system.
Several factors will combine to reduce projected rail ridership from figures used in the 2004 Final Dulles Rail Environmental Impact Statement.
The period of rapid domestic passenger growth at Dulles Airport between 1990 and 2005 has ended. Only moderate growth is anticipated during the next decade. Dulles recorded 23.2 million passengers in 2011, down from the peak of 27 million reached in 2005 at the height of Independence Air operations. Increased passenger boarding charges at Dulles (more than $26 per passenger up from $17 two years ago), service cutbacks at Dulles by JetBlue and Airtrans, and more long distance flights from Reagan National Airport recently authorized by Congress will compound this problem in the next several years.
Downzoning of residential areas in Loudoun County has reduced zoned population capacity there from more than 1 million people 10 years ago to fewer than 500,000 at build-out today.
Many more people work at least part time at home or on flex schedules today reducing potential daily transit demand. The greatest office market growth since 1980 has occurred outside the Capital Beltway, a trend expected to continue because of lower office rents and housing prices.
Demographic changes, the end of increasing female labor force participation rates and growing number of baby boomers entering retirement during coming years will result in lower growth in demand for office space than experienced during the past 25 years.
Loudoun County Transit provides a popular, rapidly growing express bus network. LCT had more than 1.2 million passenger trips in fiscal 2011 — up from fewer than 400,000 trips in fiscal 2004 and fewer than 200,000 trips in fiscal 2001. The express bus is — and will remain — cheaper, faster, more comfortable and offer far more flexible service than Dulles Rail.
Typical trips to the Pentagon and State Department are 45 minutes versus more than 1 hour project times via rail from the Route 606 Park-and-Ride lot north of Dulles Airport.
If Metrorail comes to Loudoun County, WMATA will take the currently $7.9 million in local gas tax funds from Leesburg, Purcellville, other towns and Loudoun Transit.
Rob Whitfield, Dulles Corridor Users Group