Airports authority urged to shelve boardroom expansion plans


The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board chairman Charles Snelling, center, presides over a meeting at Reagan National Airport in March. (Gerald Martineau/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 19, 2011

Washington’s airports authority has plans to spend $7.2 million to double the size of its boardroom and build a three-story expansion of its headquarters.

The preliminary plans would transform the meeting space for the board of directors of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority from a conference room overlooking the runways at Reagan National Airport to a city council-style chamber with a dais and a $350,000 multimedia system.

Some current and former board members are urging the authority to shelve the project considering the storm of public debate over the authority’s management of the second phase of the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport. County and state officials and members of Congress have hammered the board over the project’s rising cost.

“It’s a terrible signal,” said former Northern Virginia congressman Tom Davis, who officially joined the board after the vote to set aside budget funds for the expansion. “We’re fast becoming an authority that appears to be more about the business of the board than about the business of running the airports. We have more important things to worry about than having a boardroom that’s more comfortable.”

The three-story, 5,800-square-foot expansion of One Aviation Circle at National Airport would include more space for the board and several rooms labeled as executive offices that have no designated purpose. Quince T. Brinkley, the board’s secretary, said it would be up to the authority’s new chief executive, John E. “Jack” Potter, to decide how to use the space. Potter, who took over last week, declined to comment, a spokesman said, because he is still being briefed on the authority’s projects.

Board members who have pressed for the expansion say the current space is cramped and awkward. Members sit around a conference table with their backs to the audience, making it difficult for others in the room to follow the discussion.

“I think the public is entitled to see and hear what’s going on,” said board member Robert Clarke Brown, who is treasurer of Case Western Reserve University. “What we want to get to is more of a room that is like a city council room or a congressional hearing room.”

Standing room only

For two decades, there was a limited audience for the work of the airports authority, which oversees the publicly owned Dulles and Reagan airports. That changed in 2008 when the authority took control of the Dulles Toll Road and one of the nation’s largest mass transit projects to build a 23-mile rail line through Tysons Corner to Dulles and into Loudoun County.

To accommodate the burgeoning interest in its work, Brinkley said, the board signed off in December on $7.2 million in its 2011 budget for the expansion. Brink­ley said plans were drawn up in response to concerns from board members and the authority’s fire chief about standing-room-only crowds at twice-monthly meetings.

Board member William W. Cobey Jr., a former North Carolina congressman, also said the current setup is not ideal for the audience or board members.

“You can ask, ‘Is this the type of expenditure that should be made now?’ But this did come along before we got into the latest dispute.”

In recent months, the board has been criticized by the region’s elected officials for being unresponsive to the concerns of Northern Virginia businesses and commuters, who will pick up most of the tab for the second phase of the Metro project. Board members are being pressed to reverse their April vote in favor of building an underground airport station that is closer to the terminal but is more expensive than an aboveground alternative.

The dispute has led U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to mediate negotiations to try to trim the project’s $3.5 billion cost in talks that will continue Wednesday. The board is also under scrutiny by the transportation department’s inspector general at the request of two congressmen.

Former board member David G. Speck, a former Alexandria City Council member and Virginia delegate, said the boardroom expansion plans surfaced during his tenure but without a “clear explanation or rationale for why we wanted to spend the money to create a more regal setting.” Members, he said, should consider public perception. “It’s a good time to be presenting an austere picture of the way the authority operates and in particular how it relates to the care and feeding of the board of directors.”

Members of the agency’s 13-member board are unpaid and appointed by the governors of Virginia and Maryland, the District’s mayor and the president. Five new members have joined the board since the 2011 budget was approved. Chairman Charles D. Snelling, a venture capitalist from Pennsylvania, stressed that the plans are still in the early stages.

“It’s something we need to do in the long haul, but how and when we do it has not been decided,” he said.

No tax money involved

The construction project would represent less than 1 percent of the authority’s $1.5 billion scheduled six-year capital program. The agency’s $1.9 billion annual budget relies on passenger and airline fees and airport concessions, not tax dollars.

Preliminary sketches provided to The Washington Post in response to a public-records request show a newly configured second-floor boardroom that would provide seating for 130, a dais and a suite with a conference room, restroom, sitting room and computer room. A detailed cost estimate includes $350,000 for audio/visual equipment that Brinkley said is necessary in part because the board’s microphones are unreliable.

“We’re not looking for anything fancy when we’re doing this,” Brinkley said of the estimate.

Drawings for the expansion of the first and third floors show a total of eight offices labeled as executive space. Brinkley said those sketches are essentially placeholders because their specific use has not been determined.

The authority employs 1,400 people, with about 200 who work in what is known as the “Corporate Office Building.” The authority completed a $5.8 million addition in August 2008 that included a series of first-floor conference rooms. The board uses those rooms as overflow space, piping in audio when the boardroom reaches capacity. Brinkley said the shape of the first-floor space would make it impractical to serve as the main meeting venue.

Not all board members agree. Michael L. O’Reilly, a former Herndon mayor, called the proposed expansion unnecessary because he expects the attention from the public and the media to dwindle once the authority turns over operation of the new rail line to Metro over the next five years.

The board, he said, can make do in its current space or move to the first-floor rooms.

“We’re at the top of the bell curve now, and attendance is going to drop off,” he said. “I’m not big on pomp and circumstance.”

Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
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