Airports authority has a good face as well as bad

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury of public opinion, I rise to defend one of our region’s least popular and most maligned government agencies: the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Actually, I’m standing up for only part of it: the 1,400 professional staff and worker bees who oversee operations at Dulles and Reagan National airports, the Dulles Toll Road and construction of Metro’s Silver Line to Dulles.

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They make up, by far, the biggest part of the authority, and they’re the ones whose work directly affects us.

By contrast, I’ve got nothing good to say about the 12 political appointees now on the MWAA’s board of directors. (One seat is open.) Their well-publicized excess spending, secrecy and mishandled contracts have so damaged the agency’s reputation that officials fret it won’t be able to attract quality recruits in the future.

In the latest instance, the board drew a strong reprimand last week in a letter from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and our region’s three top elected officials. The four said they were “gravely concerned” and “outraged” over various missteps and that the MWAA was “in desperate need of reform.”

Unfortunately, the board’s poor performance has overshadowed the commendable work that the rest of the MWAA has been doing on major building projects to improve air passengers’ quality of service.

For instance, although you’d hardly guess it from all the negative headlines about the Silver Line, construction of the first stretch of the rail line to Dulles is only about three weeks behind schedule. The MWAA plans to hand it over to the Metro transit system a year from now, in late August 2013, compared with the original target date of July 31. The delay is attributed entirely to bad weather.

The project is over budget, admittedly — but not by a lot, as these things go. The cost overrun is less than $150 million on a $2.9 billion project. Much of the excess resulted from unanticipated safety-feature requirements from Metro in the wake of the 2009 Red Line crash.

“Dulles rail is an incredibly complex problem, [yet] it appears that they are bringing it in within a respectable margin of error, costwise, and on time,” Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance President Bob Chase said. “There’s a difference between the professional management of the authority and the political or policy end.”

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said: “It’s really the two faces of MWAA. It has been a dysfunctional board, although right now they’re trying to straighten themselves out. On the other hand, there is the MWAA staff that has been doing an exceptional job on Phase 1, and we should all be celebrating that this enormous project has been extraordinarily well run.”

Phase 1 builds the rail line through Tysons Corner to Reston, and Phase 2 continues it to Dulles Airport and into Loudoun County.

The board got itself embroiled in major disputes with both Democratic and Republican politicians over the cost of Phase 2 and whether to formally encourage adoption of a union-friendly Project Labor Agreement.

Meanwhile, the staff finished expanding the international-arrivals building at Dulles and building a convenient new underground rail line from the main terminal to the boarding gates.

Nobody at the MWAA bears any responsibility for one of the public’s biggest complaints about the agency: the board’s plan to sharply raise tolls on the Dulles Toll Road in the future to help pay for the Silver Line.

The choice to fund the project that way was made by the federal government, the Commonwealth of Virginia and other interested parties. They could keep tolls down by contributing more money to the Silver Line, but it’s easier to complain about the board’s overspending.

“MWAA was given these funding tools [for the Silver Line]. That’s all they have. If [Virginia Gov.] Bob McDonnell wrote a check for $500 million tomorrow, you’d see tolls come down,” Chase said.

In light of all this, the goal for our area must be to ensure that the MWAA board follows through on reforms that LaHood and top regional leaders have demanded to curb wasteful spending, tighten ethics and eliminate conflicts of interest.

We also have to demand that our politicians name qualified, responsible people to the board. The problems arose largely because appointments were used to reward political supporters rather than tap top-quality airport expertise.

Meanwhile, let’s be thankful that the MWAA staff hasn’t been infected by its supervisors’ ailments.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For earlier columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

 
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