The convoluted schemes of Virginia politicians to avoid paying for rail service to Dulles International Airport are as frustrating as they are self-defeating and unfair.
Just a few days ago, it seemed that the General Assembly would consider adding $300 million to help extend the new Metrorail Silver Line to Dulles when the legislature meets to approve an $85 billion budget on April 18.
But thanks in part to last-minute opposition by deal-making Democratic State Sen. Charles J. Colgan of Prince William County, the $300 million went “puff.” No deal. No money.
The $300 million cut underscores what seems to be Richmond’s ancient philosophy on expanding Dulles Rail: Stick as much of the cost as possible on taxpayers and tollpayers in Northern Virginia.
Days after the $300 million disappeared, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors confirmed its buy-in for Phase Two of the Dulles Rail project, whose ultimate costs will top $2.7 billion. The county says that while it is looking for alternate funding sources, it may pay up to $965 million for the project. About $730 million — or 80 percent — will come from “voluntary” special tax districts created by landowners.
So Northern Virginia, which provides more state tax revenue than any other region of the Old Dominion, gets stuck with most of the bill for Dulles Rail. That is the criticism of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which was quick to note the bizarre budget cut. They point out that, at the same time, the administration of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell is proposing at least $750 million in state funding for a new superhighway near U.S. 460 in the rural peanut country of Southeast Virginia and diverting $200 million for a controversial bypass in Charlottesville.
It’s hard to fathom why providing Dulles rail with state money is so anathema. The new U.S. 460 tollroad project, for instance, raises many questions. It is being billed as a necessity for Virginia’s economic future since the port of Hampton Roads needs better transportation access to handle bigger, deeper-draft cargo ships when the Panama Canal expansion is complete in 2014.
Yet, Norfolk Southern railway, which serves the port, has already finished a $321 million public-private project to enlarge mountain tunnels to handle more double-stack rail shipments from Hampton Roads to the Midwest. The chief executive of the Panama Canal Authority says that thanks to rail improvements, Hampton Roads is already prepared to handle the expanded trade the canal project will bring. If he’s right, then why the urgency for the new road?
There have been other peculiar impediments to the state paying for Dulles rail, such as right-wing Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli and others crying foul at any attempt by the airports authority to use the same kind of voluntary project labor agreement that helped move Phase One forward. A more deep-rooted issue is Virginia’s traditional philosophy, dating back to the one-party system of Harry F. Byrd 100 years ago, that public projects must be funded on a “pay as you go” basis.
That might have worked for building a two-lane bridge in bucolic Virginia back in the days when TV’s John Boy Walton, attired in his bib overalls, would have been around. Today, the fact remains that Washington is the only capital in the advanced industrialized world not to have public rail service to its leading international airport.