July 8, 2011

Last week, Calvin L. Scovel III, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, announced that his office will begin an audit to determine whether the policies and practices of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) comply with the law and are adequately transparent and accountable.

For years, the airports authority has controlled the development and implementation of the Dulles Toll Road and the Dulles Metrorail extension, to mixed reviews. I first voiced my opinion — that a private firm would be better equipped to administer these key infrastructure assets — years ago. I’ve followed the steady, and some would say predictable, decline of the management of the Dulles transportation corridor ever since, and I’d like to offer the inspector general a few words of advice as he begins his audit of MWAA.

1. Remember how the problem started. In 2005, private investors reached out to the Virginia Department of Transportation, then operator of the Dulles Toll Road, with the idea that a private company acquire a 50-year lease on the toll road and operate it on behalf of the commonwealth. Similar projects had been undertaken in other jurisdictions, including Indiana and Chicago. In those places, substantial upfront payments were made to the government in exchange for the right to operate key pieces of infrastructure ($3.8 billion and $1.8 billion, respectively).

However, Gov. Tim Kaine decided to forgo massive upfront payouts on long-term leases to private business, opting instead to cede the authority of Virginia over a key piece of infrastructure to MWAA. Neither the General Assembly nor the Commonwealth Transportation Board were consulted. Many of us in Richmond took issue with Kaine’s decision. We passed on an opportunity to create private-sector activity, collect substantial upfront revenue and maintain oversight for a critical asset.

2. Consider the costs to Virginia’s taxpayers. The brunt of funding for the Dulles rail extension is borne by Fairfax and Loudoun County residents through special tax districts and commuter tolls. Before the airports authority took over the Dulles corridor, tolls were a modest 75 cents each way. Next year, tolls will increase to $1.50 each way, and estimates indicate that they may rise as high as $11 by 2020 to generate the revenue necessary for a rail extension that the authority deems adequate. Major stakeholders agreed to tap tolls for the project, but the costs of the rail extension’s second phase have steadily ballooned while MWAA board members voted to pay hundreds of millions of dollars extra for an unnecessary below-ground airport rail station. That the airports authority is utterly unaccountable to the residents of Fairfax and Loudoun — who collectively pick up 21 percent of the cost of Phase 2 the Dulles rail extension through taxes — adds insult to injury.

3. Demand responsible stewardship and accountability. The inspector general’s audit could be a springboard for improved service and accountability, but an audit is only the first step toward long-overdue reform. The inspector general has quite a task ahead, given a history of back-door votes to employ out-of-state, unionized construction workers and out-of-control spending increases borne by residents who are neither adequately represented on the authority’s board nor able to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to follow the authority’s actions (the MWAA is considered an “interstate compact” and thus is beyond the reach of FOIA and various other state laws). Suffice it to say, the authority has made the most of its powers, to the detriment of taxpayers in Northern Virginia.

It is vital to the Dulles corridor, to say nothing of the people of Northern Virginia, that Scovel root out these abuses and confirm what many of us in Richmond have said from the beginning: The MWAA may ably administer Dulles International and Reagan National airports, but it is ill-equipped to handle the development and implementation of a major multimodal infrastructure corridor. The airports authority has not yet been held accountable to the taxpayers and has operated without checks and balances. The responsible development of the Dulles corridor is extremely important to the infrastructure and vitality of Northern Virginia. It’s essential that DOT’s audit bring the MWAA’s long history of mismanagement to light and improve, quickly and substantially, the agency’s practices.

The writer, a Republican, is the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates.