Next week, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority officials will play host to public hearings in Reston and McLean to get community input on proposed toll rate increases to support the construction of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project and improvements to the Dulles Toll Road.
Although Airports Authority officials deserve some credit for organizing the meetings, why they weren’t conducted three or four years ago — when Fairfax residents might have had a legitimate say in the scope of the project and how its gargantuan debt load is distributed.
A rocket scientist certainly isn’t needed to understand that unless people who represent toll road users have a seat at the table, an equitable solution to rail’s funding problems is unlikely.
The Airports Authority, which operates the 14-mile toll road and oversees construction of the 23-mile rail line, is likely to move forward on a proposal that would double the rate of a one-way trip from Reston to Arlington from $2.25 to $4.50 by 2015. That same trip is expected to cost $8.75 in 2023 and jump to $12.75 in 2033.
The steep toll hikes are the result of project costs that tripled during a 10-year period and ultimately required more than $1.3 billion in revenue bonds to be issued.
Under the current plan, Dulles Toll Road users will pay for 75 percent of Phase 2’s $2.8 billion price tag, a troubling formula that will dump thousands of cars on already congested side streets, as commuters attempt to save a couple hundred bucks per month and, just as important, negatively affect the local economy. It’s a safe bet that every extra dollar that goes into a toll basket is likely one that won’t be spent in a local restaurant or clothing store.
A central reason for the toll inequity has been the Airports Authority’s inability to keep toll increases in line with initial projections.
The $150 million Virginia officials committed to the project earlier this year is laughable. No other mega-transit project in the U.S. is 100 percent funded with local dollars. In fact, the original Dulles Rail funding formula called for 50 percent federal grants and 25 percent state grants. The federal government, whose employees stand to gain more than anyone from a Washington, D.C., to Dulles rail connection, should be providing grants rather than doling out loans for Phase 2.
If just one thing comes out of next week’s public hearings, hopefully it is that there is some genuine dialogue about tweaking the funding plan so someone not affiliated with the Airports Authority might describe it as “fair and balanced.”
That means re-adjusting the percentage of project money being taken from local taxpayers and asking both the state and federal government to step up.
Twenty-five percent of the Phase 2 costs should have been paid by the state, another 25 percent by the federal government and another 25 percent by local toll road drivers. The final piece of the project should be placed on the backs of those who actually ride the rail line. That could be accomplished in a number of ways, although a $2 per ride surcharge for a period of 10 or 15 years probably is the most palatable.
These are conversations that should have taken place in 2007 and that next week’s Airports Authority-led victory tour likely won’t change much. Toll rates are going up, and secondary roads across Fairfax County will see more brake lights as a result.
That said, the upcoming meetings should give commuters a chance to do some healthy venting and get answers to some long-ignored questions.
If nothing else, perhaps it will result in things being done differently the next time a major transportation project rears its head in Northern Virginia.