AFTER YEARS of laboring in contented obscurity, the authority that runs Dulles International and Reagan National airports has lately found itself in the eye of various political hurricanes, some largely of its own making. Given that the authority is master of a $6 billion construction project — Metro’s Silver Line rail extension to Dulles — and overseer of a road that handles 300,000 daily trips — the Dulles Toll Road — some controversy is unsurprising. What’s important is that the disputes not be allowed to interfere with progress on the 23-mile Silver Line, the first half of which is scheduled to open late next year.
A clash last year over where to locate the Silver Line station at Dulles prompted a months-long impasse, resolved finally thanks to the mediation of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Now, two fresh quarrels have created new uncertainties.
One involves legislation Congress enacted late last year to expand and reform the 13-member board that runs the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), thought the authority would be improved by adding four members (including two from Virginia) to the board and ensuring that members actually left the board when their terms expired.
The board, not thrilled by what it regards as congressional meddling, has taken the position that the legislation is moot until both Virginia and the District — which together created the authority to run the airports under a lease from the feds — amend their joint compact to reflect the changes. That stance appears legally correct, though Mr. Wolf, in whose district Dulles is located, is furious.
The question is what comes next. Democrats in Virginia have blocked a quick approval of the amendments, though they are likely to go along eventually. But D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (who would get to appoint a new board member) is mum. No one knows whether he’ll go along with changing the compact. He should.
The risk is that a prolonged period of confusion could delay the Silver Line’s progress, possibly by casting doubt on the validity of contracts. That cannot be allowed to happen.
Further questions about the project’s second phase are being raised in Loudoun County, which is on the hook for about $250 million of the cost and where the extension’s two westernmost stations would be built. Some members of Loudoun’s new, all-Republican Board of Supervisors are questioning the Silver Line’s cost-effectiveness. If Loudoun decides to withdraw from the project, sacrificing its two stations, that would also add uncertainty — though it would also shave Silver Line costs.
At the heart of the matter are concerns about the airports authority’s ability to build the Silver Line on time and on budget. Confidence in the authority has already been shaken by reports that the project’s first phase is behind schedule. The Silver Line is critical both to the future of Dulles and the region’s economic vitality. The stakes are too high for the authority in charge of it to take its eye off the ball.