DULLES RAIL PROJECT
Fate of Metro Extension, Toll Road Ignites Interest in Unelected Panel
Monday, April 3, 2006
On the first Wednesday of every month, a group of 13 men and women get together in a glass-walled boardroom that overlooks the runways at Reagan National Airport to conduct the business of Northern Virginia's two main airports.
What happens in that room suddenly is of keen interest to public officials and commuters across the region, because the people who meet there are newly in charge of constructing a 23-mile rail line from Falls Church to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County, setting tolls on the Dulles Toll Road and making scores of other decisions regarding both.
What others will find are meetings that are far more Fortune 500 than county council. Smartly clad members and their staff members move quickly and efficiently through their agendas with a lot of deference and little disagreement crossing the table.
They'll also find that the board of directors of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is a select mix of locals and out-of-towners, corporate executives and former politicians, transportation experts and real estate developers that come from some of the highest public and private posts in political and corporate Washington.
Chairman Mary A. "Mame" Reiley is a former chief of staff to Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) and is senior political adviser to former governor Mark R. Warner (D), who is considering a presidential run.
H.R. Crawford, the board's vice chairman, is a former D.C. Council member and head of a real estate firm. William W. Cobey Jr. was a member of Congress from North Carolina in the 1980s and has since served as leader of the state's Republican Party. David G. Speck is a former Virginia delegate and Alexandria City Council member who is now an executive with Wachovia Securities. William A. Hazel is one of the region's leading developers.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta was a board member before his stints in President Bill Clinton's and President Bush's cabinets.
All board meetings are open to the public, although there is no formal avenue for people to register complaints. Members said they probably will add a comment period or another way for people to air their views after the rail deal.
Members of the board, which was created in 1986, are not paid and can serve no more than two six-year terms. Five members are appointed by the governor of Virginia; two by the governor of Maryland; three by the mayor of the District; and three by the U.S. president. James E. Bennett has served since 2003 as president and chief executive of the authority.
Rail opponents, as well as some supporters, have expressed reservations about how sensitive an unknown, unelected board will be to public concerns and whether it will be committed to a rail line that is expected to serve the interests of the region as well as Dulles Airport's.
Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) has threatened to withdraw the county's portion of funding for the rail line if leaders aren't given more say over the rail line and highway, and Arlington County Board member Barbara A. Favola (D) has called on the authority to add a locally appointed member.
Supporters of the deal said concerns about the board and its commitment to the community are unfounded. They described the board as extraordinarily professional and committed to the success of the entire Washington region.
They also said the airports authority bid has salvaged a rail line that was teetering on the edge of disaster under state control. Backers said the public can count on the authority to employ the same management expertise that enabled them to build a new National to remake Dulles, a project that includes underground rail between terminals.
"Everything they've done, they've done very well," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) He added that "the governor of Virginia appoints five of the people. The state of Virginia has tremendous control over what happens with that authority."
Authority board members said they are extremely sensitive to public opinion and would work in concert with the region in building the rail line and operating the highway.
"We are all a politically appointed board and each of us is accountable to our appointing authority," said Robert Clarke Brown, an adviser to the federal Transportation Department who lives near Cleveland and was appointed by Clinton. "We're very transparent in our operations."
Brown said the stickiest issue may be what rates are set for the toll road. The authority plans to use toll revenue to finance bonds to pay for the nearly $4 billion rail line.
Brown and other board members said the rate-setting policy would be fair and open to public scrutiny. "We're a public agency," he said. "We're not in the business of trying to gouge people."
Speck, a Virginia appointee, said concerns from public officials "reflect the anxiety that they themselves are not directly involved in decisions, and that worries them. That's not something they should worry about. This is a board that's going to be, by any standard, very responsive to the community."