By Steven Ginsberg and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
The authority that controls Dulles International Airport made a move yesterday to take over the state-run Dulles Toll Road and seize control of construction of a rail line to the airport, hoping to ensure that the troubled project moves forward.
As owner of the land on which the toll road is built and much of the rail line would reside, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority could stop efforts underway to privatize the highway if its proposal is rejected. Because of the authority's clout, the proposal carries enormous consequences for one of the biggest rail projects in the nation and promises higher tolls on one of the most heavily used commuter routes in the region.
Airport officials said they could build the entire Metrorail line from the West Falls Church Station to Loudoun County faster than current plans, which call for it to be done in two phases, completed by 2015. They said they were concerned that the second half of the project -- bringing rail to the airport -- would be abandoned for lack of funds and political will.
"There is a certain amount of uncertainty associated with phase two . . . and this proposal attempts to eliminate that uncertainty," said James E. Bennett, president and chief executive of the airports authority. "This ensures the costs of Metrorail for its entire length."
Under its plan, the authority would take over the toll road from the state government and use its revenue to fund the state's portion of the first half of the rail line as well as the state and federal share of the second phase.
Bennett said rates on the Dulles Toll Road would rise "regularly" to keep pace with inflation and pay off bonds used to finance the project. Tolls now range from 50 to 75 cents.
The authority's bid counters the state's recent interest in allowing private corporations to take control of the toll road.
Those proposals generally call for one of several firms to take over management of the road, widen it and pay Virginia about $1 billion in exchange for toll revenue for 50 years. None of the proposals ensures that the second part of the rail line would be built or that the money would be used for local transportation projects.
Bennett said that the authority's proposal, approved by its board in a special session yesterday, would "ensure revenues earned on the toll road will be invested in transportation improvements in the Dulles corridor."
Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said all proposals will be considered. "We have an obligation to ask the very hard questions about what is in the best long-term interest of the public," he said.
Nonetheless, the airports authority wields considerable influence in the process because it owns the land that the road sits on and any changes to the corridor require its approval. Bennett said yesterday that the "state has to decide what it wants to do" but quickly added that the "road is on airport authority property."
Airport officials said its proposal would also raise $360 million for improvements to the toll road.
The airports authority was created in 1987 by the federal government to manage Dulles and Reagan National airports.
When the federal government decided to build Dulles in the 1950s, it also acquired a 17-mile highway corridor to provide access to the airport. Today, that corridor includes the Dulles Toll Road and the free Dulles Access Road. Virginia operates the toll road, which opened in 1984, under an agreement with the authority that runs until 2082.
The authority's proposal would undo that agreement.
By assuming both the state and federal share of the second phase of the rail project, the authority would free it from the lengthy federal-approval process.
"They wouldn't have to go through the federal hurdles," said Sam Carnaggio, project director for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. "It would take out a lot of the delays."
Cost estimates have varied over time. Carnaggio estimates the total cost of the 23-mile line at $3.84 billion. The first phase, from West Falls Church through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, is expected to cost $1.8 billion. The second phase, which would stretch from Wiehle Avenue to the airport before ending at Route 772 in Loudoun, is estimated to cost $2 billion.
The funding plan for the project calls for the federal government to pay 50 percent and for state and local communities to each pay 25 percent. The state wants to use tolls from the toll road to pay its share; landowners along the first phase of the route have agreed to a special tax district to cover the local share.
There are still several unknowns regarding the financing. The federal government has yet to commit to its share of the first phase, and property owners along the second phase of the route have not agreed to tax themselves to generate money for the local share. Also, the cost estimate of the first phase is $300 million more than the amount covered by the financing plan, and it is unclear who would put up the difference.
Reactions among political leaders varied yesterday.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said that if they're "building it faster and building it in a way that they do not have to get a federal match, which would be very, very difficult, it sounds like something that makes a lot of sense."
Fairfax County Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said the proposal was worth considering if it brings rail sooner, but he said he was concerned that it is "a lot of revenue to be controlled by a body that has extremely limited public accountability."
Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White said in a statement that the agency is committed to the rail extension and that "how the Dulles project should be managed and operated is a decision the leadership in the Commonwealth of Virginia must make."