Members of the board that oversees Reagan National and Dulles International airports, as well as the multibillion-dollar Silver Line rail project, remain largely grounded despite a change in policy nearly two years ago that encouraged them to travel more.
According to documents obtained by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request, board members spent roughly $17,000 last year, a year after members voted to loosen travel guidelines. Comparatively, in 2015, the year before the rule change, board members spent $32,000 on travel and other expenses.
The figures show how dramatically behavior has shifted on the 17-member board of directors of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), once known for lavish trips and dinners that included lobster tails, seared foie gras and expensive bottles of wine.
The panel that previously had 13 members and a $1.2 million budget for travel now has 17 members and a budget that is a fraction of what it was before. In 2017, perhaps in anticipation that the board would do more travel following the policy change, the board increased its travel budget to $125,000 compared with $80,000 the previous two years. The board’s travel budget for this year is $80,000.
The bulk of the 2017 funds paid for transportation to and from monthly board meetings for one of the federal representatives on the board, William Shaw McDermott, who lives in Massachusetts.
Four board members, Warner H. Session, Earl Adams Jr., Robert W. Lazaro Jr. and J. Walter Tejada, traveled to five conferences in Texas, South Carolina, California and Michigan. The events were sponsored by trade groups, including the Airports Council International — North America, which represents airports, and the American Association of Airport Executives.
“As someone who is new to the airports authority, I felt it was important to go to an industry association meeting,” said Lazaro, who was appointed to the MWAA board in December 2016. Lazaro attended the ACI-NA board and commissioners conference in Greenville, S.C., which is targeted at those who are members of boards and commissions that oversee airports.
David Speck, who co-chaired the board’s finance committee, also made two trips to New York to attend meetings related to the authority’s finances.
The $17,000 amount is only an estimate, because some receipts were missing from the reports provided.
In the first six months of this year, the board spent roughly $11,000 on travel, with six board members traveling to four conferences. Adams, Session, A. Bradley Mims and William E. Sudow attended the joint American Association of Airport Executives and ACI-NA conference in Las Vegas.
“Board members are encouraged to attend a couple of conferences a year, and I think that’s a plus,” Sudow said. “In addition to a learning experience, it’s always good to expose other boards and airports authorities to what we’re up to.”
Sudow picked up many of his own expenses — including the cost of his hotel — for the Las Vegas conference, the authority noted.
MWAA board members are appointed by the governors of Virginia and Maryland, the D.C. mayor and the federal government. They serve six-year terms and are responsible for establishing policy for the agency that oversees the airports, the Dulles Toll Road and the Silver Line rail project.
Board travel has been a sensitive and closely watched issue at the authority, which has come under fire in the past for extravagant spending by its members. Those excesses, highlighted in a federal inspector general’s report, led to strict new travel policies that required members to seek approval for trips and limited the amount they could spend on meals to the government per diem of $71 a day. Before that, there had been few rules or limits on travel.
But in 2016, the board approved new travel guidelines that encouraged board members to attend up to three conferences a year and to join professional or industry associations. Those who attended the conferences were required to submit written reports on what they had learned. The new policy also called for periodic audits of board travel expenses.
In amending the policy, Caren Merrick, who led the committee that recommended the changes, said that allowing board members to attend conferences and industry meetings was in line with the “best practices” of similar boards of which she has been a member.
Board members were not restricted from attending conferences under the revised policy approved in 2012, but only a handful did.
The authority’s revenue comes from airport concessions and passenger fees, not tax dollars.
However, the MWAA does receive federal funding as part of its management of the construction of the $5.8 billion Silver Line rail extension for Metro, the largest transportation project in the region and one of the biggest in the country. The project received a $900 million federal grant to fund its first phase and nearly $2 billion in federal loans to pay for the second. It is scheduled to open for passenger service in 2020.
In 2015, then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced a plan to give the authority $50 million — payable in two installments — to help make Dulles Airport more competitive.