By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
The governing body of Reagan National and Dulles International airports has assumed control of the Dulles Toll Road from Virginia, a key step toward building the proposed 23-mile Metrorail extension between Falls Church and Loudoun County.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is supervising construction of the new Silver Line, plans to finance the project in part with future toll increases. The transfer of the toll road from the state government signals that the $5 billion project continues to move ahead, even as it awaits final federal approval.
Additional uncertainty remains over whether opponents will continue to fight the project, and the road's transfer, in court. But rail advocates called the transfer very significant because the U.S. Department of Transportation had to certify the airports authority to operate the toll road, a step state and airport officials had been awaiting for more than two years.
The transfer could not have occurred without that certification, which earlier this year federal officials were reluctant to grant. The federal action provides further evidence that the U.S. DOT is moving toward final approval of the rail line, advocates said.
"This transfer puts the management of the project with the agency best equipped to bring the project in on time and on budget," said Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer. "This is yet another very important and positive step in the life of the Dulles rail project."
Officials with the airports authority said the transfer will have little effect on commuters who use the eight-lane, 14-mile toll road, which runs between Interstate 66 near the West Falls Church Metro station and Dulles International Airport. Virginia will continue to own the highway, and for 18 months, the state highway department will continue to maintain it under contract. Officials said tolls will remain unchanged at least until 2010.
No toll increases would take effect without public hearings, and, as part of the transfer agreement, all toll receipts will continue to pay for the maintenance and operation of the toll road. That will include some of the construction costs of the Metro extension, but no toll receipts will pay for any activities at Reagan or Dulles airports.
Still, the arrangement is troubling to some, who object to the idea of an unelected, regional body -- the airports authority -- carrying the responsibility to set tolls on a state-owned highway. In order to represent the interests of the area's three jurisdictions as well as the federal government, the authority's board of directors is appointed by the Virginia and Maryland governors, the mayor of the District and the president.
Opponents have also protested Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's decision to transfer the road without the approval of the Virginia General Assembly, a decision upheld last month in Richmond Circuit Court.
"I don't know under what authority the governor can transfer a multibillion-dollar asset without the approval of anybody," said Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). "We can't transfer subaqueous land that's worth maybe $1,000 without legislative approval."
Howell also objected to the plan to use toll road revenue to finance the rail project when the road could have been sold to a private entity and billions in sale receipts used for other transportation projects in Northern Virginia.
"It's just been my belief that the rail-to-Dulles project is an incredibly expensive one. I'm not sure it's ever going to be done, to tell you the truth," he said. "There are far better uses of that money."
Rail boosters, meanwhile, hope that debate is over. The airports authority has submitted the last of the paperwork to the Federal Transit Administration necessary to receive final approval for the rail line. That approval is critical for the project to receive $900 million in federal money toward the rail line's $5 billion cost. Officials are hoping for approval by the end of the year, with construction to start as early as March.
The initial phase of the Silver Line, for which the airports authority is seeking the federal funding, would extend from just past the East Falls Church Metro station on the Orange Line in Arlington County through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue in Reston and is scheduled to be completed in 2013. The second phase, expected to be done in 2016, would extend beyond the airport into Loudoun County.