Sparring over the Rail-to-Dulles project is morphing into the proverbial “Sound and the Fury” signifying nothing.
It’s a shame the debate can’t rise to a higher level, because preparing Greater Washington’s infrastructure for the future is so critically important. Rather than visionary leadership from the likes of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, Tea Party activist Jamie Radtke and the rest, we’re getting back-biting and the kind of reactionary, dogmatic temper-tantrums that so colored the midterm elections last year.
But fast-forward a few decades. Because of these petty battles, the D.C. area’s premier airport could wind up a shell of its 1960s glory as other airports around the world are gleaming conduits for global travelers. Dulles International Airport could end up a decaying icon of what went wrong with what once was the greatest power on the planet.
Here are the fault lines:
— Plans are for an underground Metro rail station at Dulles, which would make perfect sense in a perfect world. Travelers would be sheltered from the cold and heat of the seasons, attracting more riders, and the region would be that much less dependent upon the automobiles that have been choking the D.C. area since they started the Beltway in the 1950s.
— The station, however, would run the bill for Phase II of the Dulles Rail project by hundreds of millions of dollars. That has conservatives screaming. Why? For one thing, the agency planning things is the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, and right-wingers don’t like the fact that former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine gave MWAA authority to handle the Metro rail extension to Dulles in 2005. Kaine, of course, is running for Jim Webb’s U.S. Senate seat against Republican George Allen, so there have to be some issues created for next year’s dustup.
— MWAA is also under attack in right-to-work Virginia because Phase II would require union construction rules. In much of the United States, that wouldn’t be a problem. But this is the anti-union Old Dominion. Conservatives also don’t like the fact that a union official sits on the MWAA board. A union man? Who let that scoundrel in here?
— Conservatives like U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf want laws to increase Virginia’s representation on MWAA. Jamie Radtke, the Tea Party darling and political novice who did well in last year’s election and is running for the U.S. Senate, wants to go a step further and abolish MWAA. She would turn the Dulles Toll Road, whose tolls would pay for the rail project, over to Virginia and possibly management of the airports at Dulles and Reagan National as well.
— Little problem with Ratdke’s plan: McDonnell isn’t about to supply $150 million in state money needed to help with the Dulles project. Mind you that his transportation chief, Sean Connaughton, has been selling bonds like popcorn to get far less important roads going in Tidewater and southwest Virginia. But not Dulles, showing that Radtke might not quite be ready for prime time as a U.S. Senator.
Who loses? The people of Greater Washington, that’s who. By some accounts, commuters could be paying $40 per Dulles Toll Road round trip by 2040. Or Dulles could look like a crumbling third-world airport.