WASHINGTON — Stakeholders in the mostly bond-financed extension of the Washington Metrorail via the new Silver Line will meet with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Wednesday, as the nation’s transit chief seeks to smooth the troubled path of a project beset by funding woes.
The approval of funding for the $2.7 billion second phase of the Silver Line — a 23-mile extension of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Orange Line to Dulles International Airport — is in doubt because two of the project’s funding partners are showing hesitation to commit.
The Loudoun County, Va., Board of Supervisors has yet to approve phase two, which stretches into Loudoun from neighboring Fairfax County, and a labor dispute is holding up Virginia’s commitment to issue $150 million of debt to finance part of the second phase. Loudoun has until July 4 to approve phase two.
Fairfax County has already given the next phase the go ahead, but the majority of funding will come from over $2 billion of bonds issued by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and backed by toll revenue from the Dulles Toll Road.
Citizen advocacy groups have raised questions about the fairness of those tolls, which are slated to rise to $6.75 per trip by 2020, according to projections commissioned by the MWAA.
Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly tried to authorize $300 million in bonds to keep tolls down included in the commonwealth’s budget during negotiations two weeks ago, but Republican resistance stymied that effort.
Virginia’s secretary of transportation, Sean Connaughton, has said in recent weeks that state law will prevent the commonwealth from issuing the $150 million it agreed to in the business plan due to details of the MWAA’s project labor agreements, which the state contends violates the law that forbids financial assistance to groups that discriminate either for or against labor groups.
Now LaHood, who served as a mediator during Silver Line negotiations last year, will reprise his role and seek to broker a peace between representatives of Gov. Robert McDonnell, Loudoun and Fairfax counties, MWAA and WMATA.
“The secretary has called the meeting because he knows that the Silver Line is critical to the economic future of the region, and he wants to get all of the stakeholders in the same room so that we can make sure the project continues to move forward,” a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said.
Terry Maynard of the Reston Citizens Association, of Reston, Va., said the situation is “deteriorating rapidly.” Though the RCA expresses support for the overall concept of a rail extension to the airport, it has consistently criticized the current Dulles Rail funding structure.
In late January, Maynard released a study questioning the wildly divergent revenue estimates of three separate feasibility studies conducted by the firm CDM Smith and commissioned by the MWAA. Both CDM Smith and MWAA authorities defended the estimates.
Maynard said the decision of the DOT not to award a Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act grant to the MWAA proposal when TIFIA loan finalists were announced last week was another blow that even further calls into question whether the all-Republican Loudoun County Board of Supervisors will approve phase two.
“Things could change, but if the state and U.S. government are reluctant to grant/lend money to Dulles rail, I think it is likely that Loudoun will decide not to as well, and the 'funding partners’ deal falls apart,” Maynard said.
An MWAA spokesman said the authority would not comment on the meeting until after it takes place.