Silver Line needs more help from McDonnell

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 14, 2012

Remember back in 2009 how Bob McDonnell stressed his Fairfax County roots as he campaigned successfully to become Virginia’s governor? He and his television ads emphasized how well he’d handle our region’s problems because he’d lived here as a child.

Unfortunately, the governor risks disappointing his childhood home on one project that is vital to it: extending Metrorail’s Silver Line to Dulles International Airport and beyond.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Especially over the past six months, McDonnell’s administration has been so grudging and combative about the effort that some transit advocates believe he’d prefer to see it fail. They fear that the governor would like to shift the funds to build roads that would contribute to suburban sprawl.

“I am personally convinced that this administration does not want Dulles rail to move forward. They want to preserve state money for outer suburban and rural highways,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Another explanation is simply that the Republican is playing to his conservative base, which is leery of both public spending and mass transit. Perhaps McDonnell is polishing his conservative credentials to be more appealing as a potential vice presidential pick for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.


Construction scene at the Dulles Airport Metro extension project (also known as the Silver Line) near the intersection of Rt 7 and Spring Hill Rd in the Tysons Corner area of McLean. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The latest evidence of McDonnell’s stance is his decision this month to oppose Senate Democrats’ push to add $300 million in state financing for the project’s second phase. That’s the stretch that would extend the Silver Line from Reston through Dulles into Loudoun County.

The proposed extra money would be on top of $150 million in state funds already pledged. It would help hold down tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, which are financing most of Phase 2. It would be a huge plus in persuading the all-Republican Loudoun Board of Supervisors not to pull out of the endeavor.

McDonnell’s point man on the issue, state Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton, said it wouldn’t be prudent to add to the state’s debt to procure the extra money. Such concerns don’t keep the state from borrowing for road projects, though. One example is $500 million in planned loans to improve Route 460 through mostly uncongested farm country southeast of Richmond.

The fact is that the state’s direct contribution of funds for the Silver Line is paltry compared with what it’s paying for big highway projects.

At present, Virginia plans to provide only 6 percent of the total cost of the Silver Line, according to a study prepared for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the agency overseeing the project. That compares to a state share of more than 20 percent for such ventures as adding high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway.

The Richmond administration also continues to harshly criticize the airports authority, known as MWAA, for poor management of the project, even though MWAA has clearly been correcting past errors.

In a telephone interview Friday, Connaughton said the state was so unhappy with MWAA that it would rather finish building the Silver Line itself.

“We are actively evaluating whether we can take the project over. These guys are a disaster,” Connaughton said. “We’re at the point, quite honestly, where we think we could potentially do it better, cheaper, faster.”

That isn’t likely to happen. Under the deal in which Virginia originally gave MWAA the job of building the Silver Line, the airports authority decides mostly on its own whether to hand it back.

Moreover, such a transfer shouldn’t happen. It would be a huge headache to shift responsibility back to Virginia, and it would probably add years to the project.

The administration and others were justified last year in complaining that MWAA had let the cost of the project get too high. Now, though, the estimated cost of Phase 2 has been reduced by about $1 billion.

The authority has also significantly softened its original insistence on having a pro-union labor agreement for Phase 2. (As I wrote in an earlier column, though, it still hasn’t gone far enough to satisfy Republicans in Richmond and Loudoun.)

“MWAA has been listening and has acted on what we’ve heard in the past,” MWAA President Jack Potter said.

Connaughton acknowledged that the authority “is in much better shape than it was.” If it keeps improving its performance, he said, then the administration would be willing to seek additional money for the Dulles project next year.

It would be better to invest more now. Rail to Dulles is too important to be exploited to score political points with the right. The governor needs to reembrace that 2009 promise to serve the best interests of the region of his youth.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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