Airports authority endorses aboveground Dulles rail station

July 20, 2011

Washington’s airports authority Wednesday abandoned plans to build an underground Metro station at Dulles International Airport after months of bitter debate with the governments helping to fund the project to extend rail service to Loudoun County.

But local, state and federal officials continued to negotiate how to pay for the second phase of the 23-mile rail line and how it would affect fees on the Dulles Toll Road, which are slated to cover at least half the cost.

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.

“I know you’re underwhelmed by the secretary’s commitment, but I’ve never seen him spend so much time or pull out so much hair,” Rogoff said of LaHood during his briefing to the board. “This comes down to whether people want to work cooperatively toward a productive end.”

LaHood’s proposal

LaHood offered to referee talks between the airports authority and other regional leaders when the stalemate over the Dulles station threatened to jeopardize the project.

A deal to trim the cost of the second phase to about $2.8 billion remained incomplete after a meeting at LaHood’s Southeast Washington offices Wednesday afternoon.

LaHood’s proposal requires the support of all regional investors, and there were signs Wednesday that elements of the plan were causing discomfort among some interested parties, including Fairfax County and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The draft agreement would apportion responsibility for finding savings among Virginia, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, Metro and the airports authority.

Snelling, the authority’s board chairman, said he wants his members to adopt an agreement with all of the project’s other partners at the board’s August meeting.

In a nod to Virginia’s desire for a greater role in overseeing the airports authority, the agreement would create an advisory committee to monitor the second phase of the project and to ensure that the project is “successfully deployed at a minimal cost.”

The panel would meet at least once a month and would include one member each from the state, the two counties, Metro and the airports authority.

“We want to include our partners in all the pertinent discussions as we go along planning the details of the project,” Snelling said.

Lingering misgivings

But the McDonnell administration continued to send mixed signals publicly about whether the governor intends to contribute $150 million toward the project. Rogoff told the airports authority Wednesday that LaHood has a “strong agreement” from McDonnell's transportation secretary.

After the meeting, McDonnell’s press secretary Jeff Caldwell said in a statement that “any reference to contributions from the Commonwealth is premature” because of the governor’s continued objections to the board’s decision to require the project’s lead contractor to sign a work agreement with organized labor.

Fairfax and Loudoun counties, meanwhile, have expressed a willingness to take on responsibility for constructing several station parking garages largely because of LaHood’s suggestion that federal loans would be available.

But Fairfax supervisors have balked at assuming the cost of the planned Route 28 Metro station. Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) on Wednesday called the station “problematic” and said the board would prefer that the state or federal governments help pay for it.

“We’re committed to rolling up our sleeves to finding another way to make it happen,” Bulova said.

Staff writer Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.

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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