Silver Line’s second phase to Dulles in doubt

After more than 10 years of planning to add 23 miles of Metro rail line in Northern Virginia, the second part of the Silver Line project could be dead before a spade of dirt is turned.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Virginia, and Loudoun and Fairfax counties are at a stalemate over pro-union labor deals, concerns about costs and an inspector general’s investigation of the authority.

“This project will die if the stakeholders cannot get together and resolve their differences,” said Leo J. Schefer, head of the Washington Airports Task Force, a group of business leaders that supports the Silver Line.

If the project ever does start, it won’t start on time.

The Silver Line’s first phase, which runs through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue, is now under construction and is expected to be completed in August 2013. The second phase is expected to run from Reston to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County.

But the airports authority hasn’t been able to solicit bids yet for Phase 2, and construction was scheduled to start in spring 2013.

The biggest problem, according to Schefer and others: chest-thumping and good, old-fashioned politics.

“Underlying all of this is party political extremes that are being put ahead of public purpose,” Schefer said. “It’s become an emotional issue.”

Some Virginia lawmakers have adamantly said they don’t want the right-to-work state to contribute $150 million to the project’s nearly $3 billion construction cost because MWAA has decided to give potential contractors a 10 percent incentive if their bids favor union labor.

Another complication is that some of the biggest players, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, are headed out of office, which would leave a new set of officials to see Phase 2 through to completion.

LaHood, who helped negotiate a deal last fall on how to finance the second phase of the project, has said he plans to retire at the end of the year. McDonnell’s term expires in January 2014 — not even a year after the second phase of the project is expected to begin construction, which could take five years.

The effects of political turnover are already being felt.

Loudoun’s choice

In Loudoun County, the Board of Supervisors underwent a sweeping change after the November elections. Many supervisors on the nine-member board have questions about the project’s cost.

Loudoun’s portion of the construction bill is more than $200 million, plus another $11 million a year starting in 2018 to help subsidize operating costs.

Loudoun Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles District) said people should be concerned about the possibility of Phase 2 being derailed.

“There is a very legitimate and real chance that this project might not go forward,” he said.

The Republican-dominated board of supervisors views the pro-union project labor agreement as a “deal-breaker,” he said.

Loudoun’s supervisors asked for an extra 30 days to decide whether they will contribute. They now have until July 4.

Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, said her county agreed to the extension “in the hopes that the Loudoun board would be comfortable enough to participate.”

If Loudoun pulls out, it would likely mean the financing deals have to be renegotiated and other adjustments would have to be made. Many say that would be shortsighted, and Loudoun residents who travel the Dulles Toll Road would end up paying toll increases without having an easily accessible Metro line.

“Our number one transportation priority is rail to Dulles,” Bulova said. “It was never rail to Loudoun County. We were happy to have Loudoun as a partner. The economic development opportunities are enormous. If they pull out, they are the losers.”

‘These guys are a disaster’

Originally, the process to get information out to potential bidders was scheduled to start in early March with bids being accepted by the end of the year and a winner being chosen by early 2013. But now the timetable is up in the air.

“This has been a frustrating process,” said Tom Davis, a member of MWAA’s board. “The only logical thing we can do is see what Virginia gives us and see what Loudoun does. We really don’t have much choice.”

LaHood has called a May 2 meeting of the stakeholders to try to reach an agreement to move the project forward. Many observers say the loss of Phase 2 would have a huge impact.

“So many corporations have moved, knowing that rail was part of the equation coming farther out,” said Patricia Nicoson, president of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association. “This project is too important to fail. We need cooler heads to prevail.”

“If it doesn’t go, it says something about the region,” she said. “It says we couldn’t get it together to do a long-term rail project. That’s unthinkable to me.”

The uncertainty is magnified by public perceptions of MWAA. Many observers say they have lost confidence in the authority. They have accused the board of mismanagement and lacking transparency; the first phase of the Silver Line is already estimated to be as much as $150 million over budget.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general is conducting an investigation of the authority’s management practices, transparency and governance. The report is expected to be released this spring. That makes it even more difficult to get support from Richmond and Loudoun.

“We are actively evaluating whether we can take the project over,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton has said. “These guys are a disaster.”

However, airports authority officials warn that switching the responsibility for construction to the state would be a legal mess. Connaughton said he believes that may still outweigh the alternative.

“We’re at the point, quite honestly, where we think we could potentially do it better, cheaper, faster,” he said.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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