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Infrastructure

Bond-Related Toll Road Bills Pending in Virginia

Bond-related bills pending in the Virginia House of Delegates would limit toll increases on the Dulles Toll Road and would authorize the commonwealth, through authorities, to purchase and control the privately-owned Dulles Greenway.

Delegate J. Randal Minchew, a Republican from Leesburg, is the sponsor of a bill that would authorize Virginia to provide its moral obligation to back up to $500 million of bonds already issued by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Those bonds were sold to finance the extension of the Washington Metrorail's Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport. But the use of toll road revenue to back them has proven highly controversial.

Under the terms of Minchew's bill, HB 1696, MWAA would make an annual request to the governor's office certifying an amount needed to meet debt service on the rail bonds. The governor would then take the amount to the General Assembly as part of his budget proposal, where the legislature would weigh whether to approve the spending. The debt would be a moral rather than an actual obligation.

"Nothing in this act or in any agreement entered into pursuant to this act shall be deemed to constitute a debt of the Commonwealth of Virginia or a pledge of the faith and credit of the commonwealth," the bill reads.

In return for the commonwealth's moral obligation backing of its bonds, MWAA would be required to submit any proposed toll rate increases to the commonwealth's State Corporation Commission for approval. The commission could have the power to limit toll increases.

Also pending is a bill that would authorize the commonwealth to purchase of the Dulles Greenway, a privately owned and operated asset of the Macquarie Group.

Delegate Joe May, a Republican from Loudoun County, is sponsoring two bills that would grant the commonwealth control of the approximately 14-mile Greenway.

HB 1979 would authorize the Commonwealth Transportation Board to issue municipal bonds to purchase the Greenway at a negotiated price. The debt incurred would be backed by the Greenway toll revenue, and the CTB would have the authority to set the toll rates.

Under his other bill, HB 1980, once the Greenway was acquired, the Dulles Greenway Authority would be created and would be governed by a board of 15 members drawn from the surrounding counties. The authority would be publicly funded and empowered to operate and maintain the road, but tolls collected on the Greenway would be deposited into the state treasury and toll-setting authority would remain with the Virginia Department of Transportation.

David LaRock, a local citizen involved in the debate over the bills, said he basically supports Minchew's bill but is concerned both about leaving the Dulles Toll Road in MWAA's hands after the authority has been wracked with scandal, and the potential outcome of a lawsuit over the tolls' legality and what that might mean for the commonwealth in a takeover. The lawsuit was filed by John Corr.

"If the [U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals] decides in Corr v. MWAA that MWAA is not able to use Dulles Toll Road tolls to fund the rail project, how would that affect the loan that Minchew proposes?" LaRock asked.

LaRock, however, likes the fact that such a scheme might save toll road users money, since the BBB-rated MWAA bonds have been issued at an interest rate of 6%.

The proposals are set against a backdrop of debate over tolling's place in transportation finance. While state leaders like Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton and think tanks like the Reason Foundation have recently argued that tolling must play a big role in road funding, federal lawmakers like Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., have expressed concerns that tolls might be rising too high too fast. Last month, Wolf wrote to the State Corporation Commission urging it to curb toll increases on the Greenway. Residents in the area are "getting ripped off," he wrote.

All three bills have been referred to committees. The General Assembly is scheduled to be in session though February.

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