Transportation officials and an advocacy group in Virginia are battling over whether a Virginia or District of Columbia judge should decide whether drivers on the Dulles Toll Road are being illegally charged tolls used to back bonds issued for the Dulles Metrorail project.
The dispute stems from a lawsuit the Dulles Corridor Users Group and Reston-based Parkridge 6 LLC filed against the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority as well as federal and state transportation officials Aug. 6 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It has delayed a legal decision on whether the toll road revenues can be used to pay for the Metrorail line.
In the lawsuit the group — which claimed the tolls are illegal under state law — asked for the return of $200 million of tolls already collected from toll road users. They also asked for the road to be made toll-free.
In September, the MWAA, along with the U.S. Department of Transportation and Virginia DOT, asked the D.C. District Court to transfer the case to the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia, “because, at bottom, that court has the closest connection with the claims and allegations” in the lawsuit.
The Virginians suing them opposed the request, suggesting among other things that the request might be a kind of “forum-shopping” and claiming that “litigating in D.C. is hardly a hardship.”
As a result of the dispute over the appropriate venue for the case, District Court Judge Gladys Kessler granted an extension, requiring the governments to respond 20 days after the venue is decided.
The lawsuit was filed only a few days after a $900 million bond sale by the MWAA to finance construction of the new Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport. And it coincides with efforts by some lawmakers in Congress to ban tolls on federally funded highways — based on their argument that tolling users of taxpayer-funded roads is essentially double taxation.
The lawsuit calls the Dulles Toll Road a “pork-fest that has gone on too long” and deems the Metrorail line “a money-losing rail venture.”
A core question in the suit is whether the tolls are in compliance with Virginia law. State law requires that when payments have been made or set aside for bonds issued to pay for a project, tolls can no longer be charged, the lawsuit says. The only exception it notes is when maintenance, repairs, operations, improvements, and reconstruction are needed on the project, or if they are pledged to the state transportation trust fund.
Toll revenues can only be diverted to another project, such as a Metrorail extension, if the General Assembly approves such a transfer, the lawsuit says, noting additionally that a 2008 Virginia Supreme Court ruling said taxes cannot be levied by non-elected officials. The assembly has not approved the toll revenue diversion, according to the lawsuit.
The toll road was built in 1984 and was operated until 2006 by the Virginia DOT. It is now operated and financed by the MWAA, and a portion of its revenues go toward financing the planned Metrorail line. The airport\ authority and Virginia DOT have already diverted $133 million of surplus toll revenues to pay for the project, the advocacy group claims.