Dulles Agreement Praised, Questioned
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Virginia leaders yesterday put the Washington airports authority in control of the Dulles Toll Road and construction of a Metrorail line to Dulles International Airport, a decision that cheered advocates of the rail project but led many others to question whether the authority would act in the best interests of commuters and the community.
The unusual deal gives a group whose primary responsibility is to operate Dulles International and Reagan National airports the ability to set tolls on a major local commuter route and to determine the scope of a rail line that could turn traffic-choked Tysons Corner into a walkable urban center.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) hailed the deal as a boon for commuters. "It's a major victory for those who travel and commute throughout the region," Kaine said, adding that the "proposal guarantees that we will build rail all the way to Dulles Airport and into Loudoun County."
But Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said the agreement signed yesterday was "unacceptable" and threatened to withdraw Fairfax County's 25 percent share of the project's funding if the county isn't given more say over issues related to the rail line and highway. The supervisors agreed to draft a letter to that effect.
"We only asked for one modest thing, some protections, some ventilation mechanism to assure that issues like the setting of tolls be put on the agenda so we can discuss them mutually," Connolly said. He said that if the state and authority ignore the county's concerns, "they can address the remaining 25 percent. Our cooperation is contingent on the satisfaction of this."
William Vincent, a well-known advocate for bus rapid transit in the Dulles corridor, said the second phase of the project will be "100 percent borne by the people of Northern Virginia and run by an essentially unaccountable operation. Who do you report to, who do you complain to?"
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is eager to build a rail link to Dulles, because access is becoming ever more difficult in the traffic-congested region. The airport's competitors, National and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, have rail links. Airport officials also see the line as key to getting the facility's approximately 20,000 employees to work.
The authority, governed by a 13-member board, will assume the Virginia government's role over the rail project and highway. It will be responsible for completing the rail line, including determining such key design details as tunneling under Tysons and building pedestrian bridges to Metro stations.
The deal revived long-standing tensions over the rail line's dual purposes of providing a link to the region's biggest airport and urbanizing Tysons Corner.
Because of cost concerns, the project was split in half, with the first phase ending in Reston. That led airport officials and business leaders to worry that the second phase, which would reach the airport, would never be built. Now, others worry that the authority won't be as committed to the Tysons portion. Already, cost constraints are threatening key features at Tysons, such as the pedestrian bridges, and making it likely that the train will have to be elevated through most of the area.
"There are big issues of accountability and oversight," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which supports the rail line as long as it leads to an urbanized Tysons. "I think in their haste to get rail all the way out to the airport, [the authority] may not be willing to put time into these urban design issues."
Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who is also on the Metro transit board, said the authority needs "to be concerned about more than just their front door."