Behind Closed Doors, Hoping for Open Minds
Thursday, March 22, 2007
No political issue in Northern Virginia is more highly charged than transportation. And lately, no issue has been more likely to prompt elected officials to duck public debate and seek sanctuary behind closed doors.
Last week two massive initiatives reached critical, perhaps make-or-break stages: the $1 billion transportation funding bill passed by the General Assembly, and the first phase of the $4 billion Dulles corridor rail project.
The Fairfax Board of Supervisors met in closed session March 12 to discuss a resolution it had passed twice before in essentially the same form. Hoping that the third time would charm Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), Supervisors Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), Joan M. DuBois (R-Dranesville) and Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) prepared a resolution once again asking that the proposed Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport be opened to competitive bids that include the option of a tunnel under Tysons Corner.
The state is currently in negotiations with a single bidder, a consortium led by the engineering and construction firm Bechtel, for a fixed price to build an extension that would place the Tysons segment on elevated track. Board members, and a coalition sponsored by the McLean Chamber of Commerce, say that a tunnel is the best fit with Tysons' future, which they see as urban and pedestrian-friendly. State officials say that they stand to lose nearly $1 billion in federal funding if they make major changes to the project.
One of the board's grievances is the secrecy that shrouds the state's bargaining with Dulles Transit Partners, the name of the construction consortium. Because the project is under the auspices of the state's Public-Private Transportation Act, pricing information and other critical documents are treated as trade secrets and are likely to remain confidential.
Kauffman said one reason for the closed doors was that the board was getting legal advice from county attorney David P. Bobzien on the consequences of the project's collapse in the event that the state and Dulles Transit Partners cannot agree on contract terms. State law allows an elected body to solicit legal advice on specific matters in private session.
But he conceded that it did not look so good.
"Adding secrecy to secrecy is never a great thing," he said. "But there's so much financially at stake that we need a clear understanding of what the state is doing to us or for us. The only way we can flesh that out is behind closed doors."
The board spent about 45 minutes behind those doors on the rail project.
Back in public session, it took just under 10 minutes to approve the resolution by unanimous vote.
Five days earlier, elected representatives from at least 10 Northern Virginia counties, cities and towns had met -- privately -- with Kaine to discuss their objections to the $1 billion transportation funding package passed by the General Assembly last month.
At the top of the list was a provision allowing localities to raise $400 million a year for road and transit improvements if they agree to increase taxes and fees. Regional leaders want the state to accept some responsibility for raising taxes in an election year. Kaine plans to amend the bill extensively.