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Loudoun County, Va., All In on Phase 2 of Dulles Rail Project

WASHINGTON — The Loudoun County, Va., Board of Supervisors voted 5 to 4 to go ahead with the county's participation in the second phase of the Washington Metrorail's Silver Line extension, committing it to provide about $270 million of the $2.7 billion in construction costs of that phase of the controversial and largely bond-backed project.

The board faced a July 4 deadline to choose whether or not to opt out of the proposed 23-mile train that will connect Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County with the District of Columbia and the surrounding suburbs. The total project is expected to cost $6 billion.

The project has sparked resistance from civic groups, which fear for the long-term financial stability of the Silver Line's funding model. Around $2 billion of bonds issued by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and backed by Dulles Toll Road revenues account for a huge chunk of the project's total cost and the groups have questioned the revenue projections. Loudoun County will likely finance its share with the creation of special tax districts.

Pat Nowakowski, executive director of the metrorail project at MWAA, said the project can now move forward with a design-build contract for the second phase, which will extend to and beyond the airport into Loudoun. He said the plan is to put the contract out for bid within the next few weeks. "We're very pleased," Nowakowski said.

The board held a series of meetings over the preceding months to gather public input on whether or not to join Fairfax County, MWAA, Virginia, the federal government, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in the funding partnership. The rail project would likely still have continued to the airport with or without Loudoun's participation, something even most of the project's opponents desire.

Terry Maynard of the Reston Citizens Association, of Reston, Va., released a study in January that questioned whether the toll revenue projections were being overestimated by CDM Smith, the firm hired by MWAA to produce a series of varying revenue studies. Maynard and other opponents of the project’s funding mechanism, such as Rob Whitfield of the Dulles Corridor Users Group, maintain that the toll road can't sustain adequate traffic once tolls increase sharply in the coming years. The tolls could rise as high as $6.75 by 2020 and $10.75 by 2030, according to the MWAA. MWAA and CDM Smith denied any "optimism bias" and said the studies incorporated the best available information.

Standard & Poor's maintains a BBB-plus rating on the Dulles revenue bonds, and the accompanying report issued in January reflected some concern that the facility must experience "considerable revenue growth" until 2018 to meet debt service requirements. Despite that, the agency still believes the bonds are investment grade and benefit from a strong economy along the Dulles Corridor.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hosted a closed-door meeting with stakeholders in May in an attempt to keep the project from falling apart over a union-friendly labor provision in MWAA's business plan. Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton had said the state would not release its $150 million contribution to phase two unless the provision was dropped in accordance with a stipulation in the state budget forbidding union-based provisions. The MWAA board subsequently voted overwhelmingly to drop the labor language.

LaHood reacted to the Loudoun vote with satisfaction. "I applaud today's Loudoun County Board vote," he said. "The Silver Line will improve access for passengers traveling to Dulles International Airport and beyond while easing congestion throughout Northern Virginia. We will continue to work with the commonwealth of Virginia, Fairfax County, WMATA and MWAA to move forward with phase two of this crucial project."

The Silver Line's first phase, which stretches from East Falls Church through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, is currently under construction and is expected to open in 2013. The new line will connect with the metrorail's existing Orange Line, which extends from Washington to Vienna, Va.

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"Standard & Poor's maintains a BBB-plus rating on the Dulles revenue bonds, and the accompanying report issued in January reflected some concern that the facility must experience "considerable revenue growth" until 2018 to meet debt service requirements. Despite that, the agency still believes the bonds are investment grade and benefit from a strong economy along the Dulles Corridor."

With sequestration around the corner, the entirety of Northern Virginia is at risk.

Add to that a court ruling in September-ish regarding the legality of the Funding Agreement signed in 2007 after a unanimous 2008 Virginia Supreme Court ruling that stated a non-elected board (such as MWAA) can't collect taxes and a further ruling that all revenue (i.e. a toll) is a tax.

Add to that MWAA's projection that they will drive off 24,000,000 toll road trips by raising tolls and you have a risky scenario.

And Metro ridership is down year-over-year and nobody knows why (hint: because the fares keep going up).
Posted by David D | Tuesday, July 10 2012 at 2:30PM ET
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