By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006
The region's airports authority agreed yesterday to take over the Dulles Toll Road, boosting efforts to build a rail line to Dulles International Airport and raising the likelihood of higher tolls on the highway.
Exactly one year after they first proposed taking over the road from Virginia, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority officials agreed unanimously to a 50-year deal to operate the roadway and manage the ambitious rail project, which would extend the Orange Line 23 miles from West Falls Church to Tysons Corner, the airport and Loudoun County. A final agreement with state officials is scheduled to be signed Dec. 29.
Airports authority officials sought to take over the project out of concern that the second phase of the $4 billion Metro extension, which includes the link to the airport, would be delayed for years or not built at all.
Authority members say a rail link to Dulles is vital for a world-class airport. The region's other two airports, Reagan National and Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall airports, are both accessible by transit. Aside from a limited number of buses, the only way to get to Dulles is on increasingly congested Northern Virginia roadways.
"This was always about rail to Dulles," said Mame Reiley, chairman of the authority, which also runs National Airport. "This is why we chose to take the risk, while keeping in mind what is best for the region." Authority officials said the first phase is expected to be done by 2012 and the full line by 2015.
The agreement negotiated over the past year would formally transfer the toll road over to the airports authority in the spring, although the Virginia Department of Transportation would probably continue to operate it through next fall, when the authority would take over daily operations.
Authority officials have said they will raise fees on the Dulles Toll Road, which range from 50 cents to 75 cents, to pay for about half of the rail extension. They said yesterday that decisions about toll increases would be made after new cost estimates on the rail project are completed next year.
"For the driver, nothing is going to change well into the fall of 2007, or even after that," said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the airports authority.
Authority officials also said that they may switch to "congestion pricing" on the highway, which would mean charging different tolls at different times according to traffic volume. Congestion pricing is designed to reduce backups and is the proposed setup for a series of high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes planned for the region.
If those are built, the Dulles Toll Road would adopt a similar tolling structure to maintain continuity, said James E. Bennett, president and chief executive of the airports authority. Otherwise, he said, tolls for the approximately 200,000 commuters who take the 14-mile road each day would be raised periodically.
Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said he was concerned that toll road commuters would pay too much of the cost of the rail project.
"I think there has to be some understanding here about caps on toll rates for our consumers,'' said Connolly, a member of an advisory committee that will examine proposed toll increases and policy. "That was one of my big concerns when this was first proposed.''
The financing plan for the rail line calls for 50 percent to be paid by the federal government, 25 percent by the state and 25 percent by landowners along its corridor who have agreed to a special tax. The state planned to use revenue from the Dulles Toll Road to pay its share. The authority plans to use that same revenue to take out bonds to pay for the state share and the federal share of the second phase.
Also as part of the agreement, the airports authority agreed to build about $300 million in interchange upgrades and other roadwork on the highway.
"This agreement shows conclusively that every penny of toll revenue will stay in the Dulles corridor,'' said Pierce R. Homer, Virginia transportation secretary.