Another Step Forward for Rail-to-Dulles Funding in Northern Virginia

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(Leesburg, VA -- Jonathan Wilson, WAMU)  The plan to bring a rail line to Dulles airport got another vote of approval this week. A Virginia county has approved the latest funding plan for the second phase of the Rail-to-Dulles project.

The new agreement brings the price tag of phase II down from $3.8 billion to $2.8 billion for the ambitious project to connect the Washington, D.C. Metro system with the capital's closest international airport. Much of the savings are from moving the proposed Metro station at Dulles International Airport above ground, as local leaders in Virginia had requested.

The $2.8 billion-price tag is still hefty, but Scott York, the chair of the Loudoun County board of supervisors, says anyone who thinks that this project is a white elephant -- meaning "expensive and useless" -- should remember that people were once saying the same things about Dulles International Airport.

"[Dulles] is not a white elephant -- it is essentially credited with producing the economy that we have in Northern Virginia," York says.

York predicts a similar impact for the rail project. A final vote to approve Loudoun funding for the project comes in March. Leaders in neighboring Fairfax County will address the latest agreement at a regular meeting on Dec. 6.

The agreement was brokered with the help of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, after local county leaders in Virginia had grown furious at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is overseeing the project.  The Airports Authority had made several recent decisions pushing the cost of the project higher, including plans to put the rail station at Dulles underground.

This week's vote in Loudoun amounted to little more than a thumbs-up from the county regarding LaHood's brokered deal, which also includes low-interest federal loans for all parties involved in the project.

But there is still a lot of skepticism about the financial feasibility of the project for Loudoun -- some supervisors believe the plan still relies too much on increased toll revenue on the Dulles Toll Road.  If tolls go up too much, they say, more drivers will search out non-tolled routes, making traffic worse in Loudoun neighborhoods, and eventually bankrupting the Toll Road itself.  Then, some fear, Loudoun will have to find other ways to pay for the project.

Loudoun supervisors still have a chance to nix their portion of funding for the project.  The board is awaiting several environmental and engineering studies, and expect to take a final vote in March of next year.