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Political Pressure Kills Labor Provision in Rail-to-Dulles Silver Line

Wednesday, June 06, 2012 - 07:18 PM

Listen to the audio version of this story at WAMU

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority voted 11-1 to drop a pro-labor provision from the rail-to-Dulles project.

The Project Labor Agreement was to be part of the agency's plan for Phase 2 of the Silver Line rail project to build a rail extension connecting the Washington, D.C. subway to Dulles International Airport and beyond into suburban Loudoun County, Viriginia.

The MWAA's board of directors surrendered to political pressure from the Virginia Governor, Republican lawmakers in the state's general assembly and the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors who opposed the PLA.

The PLA preference would have given prime contractors a significant bonus in the bidding process for choosing a union workforce to construct the $2.7 billion rail link. Virginia officials claimed the PLA violated the Commonwealth’s right-to-work laws. The state of Virginia threatened to withdraw $150 million in funding. Loudoun County did the same with its $270 million commitment.

“I think it is important we send a signal to Loudoun County that we really wish to encourage their participation. It’s critical to the success of the project,” said MWAA chairman Michael Curto moments before voting in favor of dropping the PLA.

Board member Robert Brown cast the only no vote, saying he did not trust Virginia to follow through on its funding commitment despite recent assurances from Governor Bob McDonnell himself.

“I don’t find that believable,” Brown said.  “I would find believable a grant agreement signed by the Commonwealth and the Airports Authority to provide these funds. I don’t see any reason to believe a man who’s been governor three years is suddenly going to change his mind.”

In an interview with Transportation Nation, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton confirmed his state will participate in the project.

“We've always been in. The question has always been just how much we can be in due to some of the things that the MWAA board was attempting to put in the contract,” said Connaughton, referring to the PLA.

The death of the Project Labor Agreement preference does not guarantee Loudoun County’s participation in the Silver Line. Local funding battles of the ilk that stymie many an infrastructure project remain contentious. The county Board of Supervisors has until July 4 to opt-in, and board members are still divided over funding options. Supervisors from eastern counties where the rail line would be built have different ideas than representatives from other parts of the county where residents will rarely use the Silver Line.

For instance, the future Dulles Airport stop requires an operating subsidy that will cost Loudoun County $5 million to $7 million per year, even though  Loudoun residents are not expected to heavily use that stop.

Chairman Curto said the MWAA board would be willing to open further talks with Loudoun officials to ensure they opt in.

“There's been outreach by MWAA, by the Commonwealth and by the Department of Transportation. I think all of those stakeholders and funding partners are willing to go out to Loudoun County and answer any questions regarding the project to facilitate their yes vote,” Curto said.

A decision by Loudoun County to withdraw from Phase 2 would delay the project at least 18 months, according to MWAA’s CEO Jack Potter.

Now that the PLA is dead, the Silver Line’s critics are expected to focus on coming toll increases on the Dulles Toll Road that are supposed to finance a significant percentage of the project’s cost.

The Reston Citizens Association, which represents 58,000 residents in Fairfax County, says tolls may have to rise dramatically over the next several decades to pay for the rail line. Virginia’s $150 million commitment “will allow toll rates to edge up to $4.50 full toll over three years rather than double to that level next year,” said the association’s Terry Maynard.

“If Virginia follows through with additional incremental financing as many have promised… the tolls will still reach $18.75 by mid-century, but they would edge up year-to-year rather than in two dollar or larger increments every five years,” Maynard added.

In Loudoun County, the board of supervisors is considering a slew of potential tax increases, including creating a county-wide commercial and industrial tax or special tax districts near two future Metro stops west of Dulles Airport where commercial development is expected.

 

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