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Posted at 09:15 PM ET, 03/21/2012

Fairfax County supervisors hear pros, cons on extending Metrorail to Dulles

Update: Virginia Sen. Janet Howell, in a celebratory mood after helping to end the impasse over the budget, said Thursday that the Senate finance committee’s version would commit an additional $300 million to the project extending Metrorail to Dulles International Airport — a chunk of money she believes should help persuade Loudoun County to push ahead on the building the second phase.

The additional bond money also would not be conditioned on whether the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) dropped its preference for picking a contractor that operated under a collective bargaining agreement with labor. But Howell (D-Fairfax) also called on MWAA to “do the right thing” and rescind its policy giving a 10 percent better score to bidders using a project labor agreement, known as a PLA.


A westward facing view of the Dulles Toll Road from the Wiehle Ave. overpass where the Silver Line of the Metro is being extended to Dulles Airport . (Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post)
Although Howell said she believes such agreements between contractors and labor can save money and ensure that a project is finished on time and without disruption, she also said the same aim could be accomplished through their voluntary use.

Under the Senate Finance Committee agreement reached Thursday, Virginia would commit a total $450 million to Dulles Rail, including $150 million pledged by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) under a new funding agreement brokered by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last year. The full state senate is expected to convene Monday to vote on the plan. Once passed there, it likely would die in the GOP-led House, setting up a conference committee between the chambers that would try to work out a compromise.

Original post: More than 20 people addressed the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors this week on whether to push on with the second phase of extending the new Silver Metrorail line to Dulles International Airport at an estimated cost of $2.7 billion.

With the first phase to Reston more than halfway complete, some argued strongly for continuing with the second phase, saying the entire 23-mile extension is a critical piece in Northern Virginia’s economic engine. But others urged Fairfax County to opt out after the first phase or risk a financial quagmire.

Even supporters of the second phase worried that higher tolls on the Dulles Toll Road — which will contribute 75 percent of the funding — could drive away businesses and force traffic onto smaller arteries that are already clogged. The Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA), which is managing the project, has not set the toll rates yet, but the authority has estimated that tolls would go to $4.50 in 2013-17 and rise to $6.75 by 2018.

Other speakers said that MWAA could not be trusted to keep costs in line. State Del. Barbara Comstock (R-Fairfax) told the Board that MWAA’s board was “very dysfunctional” and criticized its bidding preference for contractors’ use collective bargaining agreements for the project.

The speakers’ views were aired in a public forum Tuesday night that, strictly speaking, the Board of Supervisors wasn’t required to hold, and on a question that is all but foreordained. Supervisors are expected to vote in favor of proceeding with Phase II, despite wrangling among Metro’s stakeholders as costs began rising last year.


(n/a - SHARON S. BULOVA)
Fairfax board Chairman Sharon S. Bulova said the board would probably affirm its interest in going ahead, although no vote would be needed to do so. A vote would be necessary by June 4, however, if the Board decided to opt out of Phase II.

Supporters of the project said the county could not hit the brakes now.

“The Dulles corridor can become essentially a 21st century main street for the national capital region,” Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, told the board. “I think you are facing a decision which, in the next 10, or maybe the next 50 years, will be one of the, if not the most, important question affecting Fairfax County.”

The Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 600 companies, the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce, and the Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. also offered strong support for the second phase to Dulles. Several reminded the board that the Silver Line was never designed to end at Wiehle Avenue, which is the terminus for Phase I.

But opponents said even if the entire Silver Line makes sense some day, it does not make sense to build now. They said population densities along the proposed extension are insufficient to support heavy rail, and they warned that Fairfax County and its local partners will be taking on more of the financial burden as commitments from key funders such as the federal and state governments have grown shakier.

“This is probably the worst financially planned project I’ve seen in 40 years,” said Thomas Cranmer, a representative of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance.Cranmer, who said he had managed a project as part of the Iraqi War reconstruction, has calculated that Dulles tolls would have to jump to $11 one way by 2018 to pay for the rail line. That means Fairfax County motorists would be paying $5,000 a year, while Loudoun County motorists who drive farther would pay $8,250, Cranmer said. In addition, every Fairfax County household would probably be paying $1,200 more a year in taxes to defray the new rail line’s cost, Cranmer said.

“This is going to be a terrible project for citizens of both counties,” he said.

Others urged the Board to squeeze greater savings by pushing MWAA to find more funding sources, perhaps by instituting tolls on the Dulles Access Road.

Several speakers said county officials should push MWAA to rescind its policy of giving a 10 percent better grade to bidders that agree to use a project labor agreement.

Metro’s entire Silver Line extension would connect with the Orange Line and run about 23 miles into Loudoun County at an estimated cost of $6 billion. Fairfax County has agreed to foot about 16 percent of the entire project’s cost.

Phase 1, which will extend Metro to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, began in 2009. It’s expected to cost about $2.9 billion, and Fairfax County’s portion is about $467 million. Crews have already begun putting the finishing touches on the Reston station and begun laying the foundations for the pedestrian pavilions and bridge columns. Service is expected to begin in December 2013.

Phase II would run more than 11 miles from Wiehle Avenue to Dulles International Airport and then into Loudoun County. Construction is projected to start in January.

Under the new funding agreement brokered by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the second phase’s cost has been lowered to $2.7 billion. Virginia also has agreed to kick in about $150 million, and Loudoun and Fairfax counties agreed to try to arrange public-private partnerships to build several parking garages.

Fairfax County has agreed to help underwrite the cost of two parking garages and the Route 28 station. The county’s funding portion has been estimated at $433 million to $498 million, county officials said.

Fairfax County will generate more than $733 million for the entire project through special tax districts in the corridor. But Fairfax County also faces a gap of about $175 million to $235 million; the county plans to make it up through developer contributions, taxes on businesses, state and federal funding grants and loans, and other sources, county officials said.

Bulova said she had no qualms about moving forward.

“We’ve been very deliberate. Our eyes have been open to all the ‘what if’s,’” she said. She compared the Silver Line project to the creation of the Virginia Railway Express.

“It was always ‘destined to fail,’” she said. “We did what we needed to do to make it succeed.”

There is more uncertainty about whether Loudoun County’s newly elected Board of Supervisors will go forward with the project.

Fairfax and Loudoun counties were given 90 days to decide whether to opt out of the second phase of the project. Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York has asked for an additional 30 days — until July 4 — because of the board’s turnover during the last election. In line with Loudoun County’s request, Bulova on Tuesday asked the Fairfax County board to push its vote back to April 10.

By  |  09:15 PM ET, 03/21/2012

 
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