U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, one of the board’s most prominent critics, stepped in to smooth out the political bickering and last month assigned someone to keep tabs on the largely autonomous body that is building the $6 billion rail line to Dulles.
“I have serious questions about how the board has operated,” LaHood said Friday. “I want the people of the D.C. area to know that we don’t agree with what they’ve been doing.”
LaHood said he met Aug. 2 with three elected officials who appoint board members — D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) — to discuss changing the membership of the board. He said they also will ask the board to terminate contracts given to former board members and former employees.
The authority says it is addressing a long list of potential improprieties identified by a federal inspector general, LaHood, members of Congress and local elected officials. Hanging in the balance is its stewardship of the region’s most costly transportation project and whether taxpayers will be left holding the bag.
To understand how a board that runs two airports — Dulles and Reagan National — got into the business of building a rail line that will carry Metro passengers 23 miles through Northern Virginia, one needs to follow the money trail.
For decades after Washington’s outer airport opened 50 years ago, people have talked of building a rail connection, which has come to be known as the Silver Line. But gathering the money to pay for it proved to be a problem.
Then came a landmark deal six years ago in which Virginia gave the airports authority control of the Dulles Toll Road. Under a deal signed by then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), the authority would use toll revenue to finance bonds to pay for the Silver Line.
And almost from that moment, the workings of a board that had been overshadowed by virtually every other elected and appointed body in Washington, from Congress to zoning boards, suddenly found its actions under intense scrutiny and withering criticism.
“You had a system that went off the tracks,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), whose district is home to Dulles and who has condemned the board as dysfunctional. “I want to see the board returned to honesty and integrity.”
Wolf sent the Transportation Department’s inspector general a list of issues that worried him. The 18-page report he got in response three months ago was a litany of concerns about the way the MWAA board did business.
Some were the kind that most concern lawmakers: weak oversight, lax ethics, conflicts of interest, no-bid contracts, a lack of transparency.