For three months, the region’s elected officials assailed the board of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority over its approval of an underground station because of their concerns about the rising price tag of the rail line, one of the largest mass-transit projects in the nation.
The authority’s board, which is overseeing construction of the rail line, voted 11 to 1 on Wednesday to endorse the framework of a deal brokered by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Building the Dulles station above ground is expected to save at least $330 million on the line’s second leg, from Reston to Loudoun, which is estimated to cost $3.5 billion, although federal officials hope to trim hundreds of millions more.
“We couldn’t make progress so long as [the underground location] was something to beat up on us about,” board Chairman Charles D. Snelling said after the meeting. “We’re no longer the excuse or the whipping boy.”
One of the driving forces behind the underground location was board member Mame Reiley, who said a more convenient, comfortable passenger experience was worth the additional cost and would stand the test of time.
Reiley voted with the majority Wednesday after conceding that her position had become politically untenable. “I believe, to our detriment, we are preparing to act in a shortsighted way,” she said before the vote.
Local political leaders, including Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), and commuter advocates praised the board’s decision as a victory for toll road users and suggested that it could begin to reverse the unelected authority board’s reputation for being unresponsive.
But whether the cost savings from an aboveground station would significantly slow toll increases remains a matter of debate. The lone holdout on the board, Robert Clarke Brown, chairman of the finance committee, said LaHood’s plan would do little for toll road users.
At Wednesday’s board meeting, Brown and Federal Transit Administrator Peter M. Rogoff clashed repeatedly about project financing, the federal contribution and the effect of the board’s decision on tolls.
Brown circulated an analysis by the airports authority that projects that one-way tolls would still rise from $2 to $13 in 20 years and to $17 in 30 years.
Rogoff challenged Brown’s figures as outdated. He also pointed to the federal government’s nearly $1 billion contribution to the first phase of the project, which is expected to cost $2.75 billion and is under construction from East Falls Church through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue in Reston.