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Washington region's top airport official to retire

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010; B06

James E. Bennett, who led the region's airports authority during an expansion to accommodate huge growth in air travel in and out of Washington, announced his retirement Wednesday.

Bennett, 55, is only the second chief executive since the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority was created in 1986 to operate Reagan National and Dulles International airports. He said he has reached a "pause point" in his career after overseeing construction of new runways and terminals; the debut in January of the AeroTrain at Dulles; and the authority's most ambitious project, the Metrorail extension to Dulles, which he cited as his greatest accomplishment.

"We got the finance plan done, the toll rate increase necessary to fund it, the transition to running the [Dulles Toll Road] -- all of those components we've achieved," Bennett said. "Now we're out there building it."

The first 11.5 miles of the 23-mile Silver Line are under construction from West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston.

Bennett, who is paid $332,750 a year, is expected to be named next month as chairman of the Alexandria-based American Association of Airport Executives, the country's largest such trade association. He said he has other employment lined up but declined to elaborate. The airports authority board has not named an interim replacement. The board will conduct a national search for a permanent successor, but board members said they expect several strong inside candidates to emerge.

At Dulles, the AeroTrain is the centerpiece of a $3 billion expansion launched a decade ago to get passengers onto planes faster. It includes a fourth runway, parking garages, 15 new gates, as well as concourse and terminal expansions, and a control tower. The airports authority said that in 2009, Dulles served 23.2 million passengers and Reagan had 17.6 million.

Bennett said the Silver Line and the AeroTrain "are both about providing capacity and services not only for today but for the future."

To boost the rail line's financing prospects with a guaranteed stream of toll revenue, the airports authority agreed in 2006 to take over operation of the Dulles Toll Road from Virginia and manage the ambitious project. Before approving funding for the first leg, federal transit officials questioned whether the authority had the staff and expertise to manage such a big project.

"We've shown that we can manage it, and Jim did an incredible job negotiating to help us get control of the toll road," said Mame Reiley, a board member.

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