More Buses, Toll Lanes To Dulles Instead of Rail

Thursday, January 5, 2006

We welcome the proposal by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to assert control of the Dulles Toll Road in order to construct the $4.2 billion-plus extension of Metrorail to Loudoun County via Tysons Corner, Reston and Dulles International Airport ["Airports Authority Might Adopt Dulles Rail Project," Page A1, Dec. 21].

The airports authority's proposal to build Dulles rail and keep the toll road revenue shows that the Dulles rail coalition is starting to crack. It also shows deep concerns about the project by a critical partner in the effort.

However, the turf battle should not obscure the fact that time, and newer technology, has passed the old-fashioned heavy rail that will do nothing to relieve congestion.

Our analysis of the Virginia Department of Transportation lease for the Dulles Toll Road shows that the airports authority does not have legal authority to operate the toll road and collect the revenue. The use of the VDOT easement -- signed with the federal government in 1983, four years before the airports authority was created -- is by VDOT only. Either party has veto power over the other.

However, the authority is in its full rights to determine future improvements built with its right of way. We believe the authority's submission to VDOT shows it is skittish about the four privatization plans proposed through the Public Private Transportation Act, some of which call for encroaching on the authority's Dulles Airport Access Road right of way.

As a result, we predict a fight between the airports authority and VDOT over the future of the toll road, meaning that the four privatization proposals -- as well as the big cash payments promised by these firms to help fund the Dulles rail -- are in jeopardy.

We also find from reading the authority's proposal to VDOT that the authority's revenue projections for building the Dulles rail are inaccurate. We also do not see VDOT handing control of tolls over to a quasi-governmental authority that has limited accountability to the public for its rates.

Contrary to the authority's contention that it can build Dulles rail faster, we believe this latest development jeopardizes the project, which is a good thing, because the Dulles rail provides no benefits to commuters, to airport passengers or to air quality, since it does nothing to alleviate congestion.

The most recent estimates for rail boardings at Dulles Airport in 2030 are only 1,300 each workday, according to research by the Washington Airports Task Force, which promotes Dulles and Reagan National airports. This means that only 2 percent of airport passengers would use Metro to get to Dulles. It would be cheaper for the authority to give each passenger a taxi voucher or limousine ride or buy each one a Rolls-Royce than to extend Metrorail to the airport (go to and click on "Fattening the White Elephant").

The projected 1,300 passengers can be handled with 5 percent of the capacity of a single freeway lane, which would cost only $4 million per mile, compared with $180 million per mile for heavy rail. This extra capacity can be sold off as congestion-managed capacity in express toll lanes and paid for entirely by the private sector and time-conscious motorists on a voluntary basis.

Because the airports authority has a free road to its door -- the Dulles Airport Access Road -- there is no incentive to use rail when a car ride is faster and more direct.

Furthermore, studies have shown that Dulles rail riders would be wealthier than average county residents, who would be subsidizing their rides. . . . It would be a subsidy paid by working and middle class residents for the rich.

The airports authority deserves credit for recognizing that the Dulles corridor needs to be completely re-engineered and that selling the toll road to outside investors would be a terrible mistake. Its obsession with obsolete rail technology is unfortunate, however.

Recent multibillion-dollar rail extensions to airports in San Francisco, Newark and New York have failed to attract as much patronage as those cities' existing, underfinanced direct bus services.

Dulles rail does nothing for the airport's customers and employees and nothing for commuters. Neither VDOT nor the Dulles rail lobby has any credible plan to reduce congestion in any meaningful way.

The Dulles rail project is being driven by landowners in Tysons Corner and by consultants, who are taking $236 million in fees out of the project while offering no congestion relief to the motorists and taxpayers who are footing the bill.

It is fundamentally unfair and unjust to build a money-losing transit project on the backs of long-suffering motorists who have paid for the costs of the Dulles Toll Road several times over.

We hope that the pending dispute between VDOT and the airports authority will eventually wake people up to the folly of this project and that we will instead see express toll lanes for cars and bus rapid transit expanded in the Dulles corridor. This is the approach being applied elsewhere in the Washington area, and the logic is the same for the Dulles corridor.

Christopher W. Walker heads a group promoting an expansion of express bus service between the West Falls Church Metro station and Dulles International Airport instead of a Metrorail extension. The group -- commercial property owners in Reston and Tysons Corner -- is called Landowners Opposing Wasteful Expenditures on Rail (LOWER).

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