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Transportation Nation

Sec. LaHood Says Loan for Silver Line "Looking Good"

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ray LaHood, the caffeinated U.S. transportation secretary, says a TIFIA loan for the Silver Line looks like a go (photo by Martin DiCaro)

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood expressed optimism a federal loan would be approved to help finance the $5.5 billion Silver Line rail project, funding that would help slow down projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road.

“This is one of the first [projects] under the new TIFIA loan program that was passed by Congress in transportation bill, which gave us an enormous amount of money, almost $2 billion over the next two years,” LaHood said. “I would say right now things look good.”

Tolls on the Dulles Toll Road are currently set to finance roughly half the Silver Line’s cost.

After swearing in two federally appointed members to the board of directors of the agency that oversees the Silver Line’s construction, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, LaHood praised the authority’s work to overhaul its ethics, hiring, and contracting practices. Last year an audit by the Department of Transportation revealed a litany of shady dealings at MWAA.

“Since then MWAA has done everything that we have asked them to do,” LaHood said. “That included passing new travel and ethics policy for its board and staff, terminated contracts with former board members and employees that are not competitively bid, adopt employment and nepotism restrictions, improve board transparency, began to make quarterly acquisition reports and forecasts to the [U.S. DOT], and approve an amendment to the lease with DOT to give us oversight of MWAA policies and procedures permanently.”

This progress is a factor in determining whether MWAA will receive a loan through the TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) program.

Last year Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly (D) said he expected the loan could amount to 25 to 30 percent of the project’s cost.  When asked on Wednesday how large a TIFIA loan would be for the Silver Line, LaHood declined to speculate, and he offered no estimate on when the final decision would be made.

“You’re the only one that would really care about that, and I’m not going to get into the details about the loan application,” LaHood said. “We are working with MWAA on this and as soon as we finalize the work we will announce what percent we’re going to give and how much money it involves.”

Drivers who use the Dulles Toll Road also care about how much funding the Silver Line may receive. Additional funding would bring down the projected toll rates, currently scheduled to rise over the next four decades.

Tolls on the road increased on January 1. The full, one-way toll increased by 50 cents to $2.75.  To the commuter who takes the road every day, that will amount to an extra $260 in 2013. The tolls are scheduled to increase again in January 2014 by another 75 cents.

MWAA CEO Jack Potter said he’s also optimistic MWAA would receive the additional funding.

“We are working very closely with the Department of Transportation, Loudoun County, Fairfax County to put our application in and we are very positive of a good outcome,” Potter said. “I’d like to get as much as we possibly can.”

Potter has been lobbying for more state funding.  Virginia lawmakers have approved only $150 million for the Silver Line so far. On Monday Potter met Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton as well as a group of lawmakers who control the purse strings in Richmond.

“I am very much focused on output. The output is dollars coming to the rail project,” Potter said. “How the Commonwealth generates those dollars is strictly Commonwealth business.  I am strictly focused on the output of $300 million dollars or more that could come to the rail project.”

In a major transportation funding plan unveiled earlier this month, Governor Bob McDonnell proposed using sales taxes revenues to provide $300 million for the Silver Line over three years.  That plan, however, is expected to face opposition in the General Assembly among lawmakers who say the rail project should not compete for general fund revenues normally used to pay for education and public safety.

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Transportation Nation

Northern Virginia Road Expansion: Betting on Dulles Airport as Freight Hub (Part 2)

Friday, December 21, 2012

There's already construction in the area, building new lanes, but planners are contemplating an entirely new highway. Pictured: Express Lane Construction on I-495 at Route I- 66 (Photo by Trevor Wrayton, VDOT)

This is the second of a two-part series on plans to expand Northern Virginia’s road network and freight capacity of Dulles International Airport. (Part 1)

To elected officials and Virginia transportation planners, Dulles International Airport is an untapped well of economic growth. However, maximizing its potential will necessitate major improvements of the surrounding road network.  That includes completion of a “north-south” corridor which is now in the conceptual stages.

On Dec. 12 the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority unveiled its intentions to pursue development of airport properties, including 400 acres on Dulles’ western side and sixteen acres around the future Rt. 606 stop of the Silver Line. The goal is to enhance the airport's industrial capacity as a freight hub.

“We are the only airport on the east coast with that kind of land available to us for development purposes. Cargo is down at Dulles right now, but it is down because of the economic uncertainty in Europe,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn). “The problem we have today is there is no easy access from the airport. The only access we have today is Rt. 28 and 28 is very limited.”

At their monthly board meeting, MWAA officials emphasized the importance of both expanding the Dulles Loop – Routes 606, 28, and 50 – and eventually connecting it to the north-south corridor.  Studies to expand all three roadways are underway.

MWAA CEO Jack Potter indicated the agency would take a cautious approach to development.

“We do not want to make an investment either at Rt. 606 or in the western lands to put a lot of infrastructure in there. We are not going to build something and hope that somebody comes,” he said during a presentation to the MWAA board.

Elected officials in Loudoun County who support the “north-south corridor” concept see Dulles as a key to future economic growth and the roads it will require as relief for traffic-weary commuters.

"Anybody who lives in Loudoun County knows that more road capacity is necessary,” said Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles). “Keeping roads small doesn't prevent growth from happening.”

Environmental groups opposed to the construction of a multi-lane, divided highway west of Dulles Airport question whether the expansion of freight is the right goal.

“There are only so many pounds of freight that you can move on an airplane in an economical way. I think it is less than one-tenth of one percent of freight in Virginia comes by air. It is going to be an important economic activity but it is not the major way to move freight in the United States,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

In his view, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Northern Virginia master plan and MWAA’s development ideas amount to a move in the wrong direction, toward sprawl-inducing road expansions that could undermine the ongoing investment in the Silver Line rail project, scheduled for completion in 2018.

“I think the people who move west of Dulles Airport aren’t looking for another interstate highway with trucks on it to serve their neighborhood,” Miller said.

Miller uses the term “outer beltway” to describe the north-south corridor concept, a term that chafes supporters.

“If you want to unlock the potential of our economic engines – and Dulles is the biggest economic engine that we have in Northern Virginia – you’ve got to be able to tie it back to the other industries. If you look on the other side of the river, we have a large biotech industry in the I-270 corridor,” said Supervisor Buona.

“If you are able to create a [transportation] link between that industry and the IT and government contracting set, and that link connects to the airport, what you’ve done is create a corridor of commerce. You have not created an outer beltway,” he added.

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Transportation Nation

DC Airports Executives Grilled on Capitol Hill

Monday, November 19, 2012

DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel (L) and MWAA vice chairman Tom Davis (photo by Martin DiCaro)

Top officials at the agency in charge of the $6 billion Silver Line testified before a U.S. House oversight committee on Friday after an audit exposed its unethical hiring, travel, and contracting practices.

Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee grilled MWAA Board Chairman Michael Curto and CEO Jack Potter about personal roles and agency policies in the granting of no-bid contracts and the rampant nepotism detailed in the audit.  The chair of the house committee, John Mica, called the agency a "poster child for corrupt practices." While acknowledging the agency's missteps, both men pointed to recent measures designed to overhaul MWAA's ethics, travel, and contracting practices.

An audit released earlier this month by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General took the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for "ambiguous policies and ineffectual controls." In addition to overseeing the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, the MWAA also manages Dulles and Reagan National Airports.

Curto and Potter also said many of the transgressions outlined in the audit took place before they assumed their current positions.

There were, however, cases that directly involved them: the law firm that employed Curto's wife was granted a $100,000 no-bid contract to provide legal counsel.  Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards (D-4th) asked Curto to explain how such a large contract could be awarded without the approval of the board of directors.

"I was not chairman at the time. I was not on the legal committee at the time. The general counsel for the authority made the decision to retain the law firm. My wife at the time was an employee at that law firm... she had no direct or indirect financial interest in the law firm," said Curto, who said in retrospect the contract should not have been granted on a no-bid basis. "Although it wasn't an actual conflict of interest it certainly was an appearance of a conflict of interest," he said.

Potter was questioned about the hiring of former MWAA board member Mame Reiley to a job created for specifically for her at an annual salary of $180,000 without proper vetting or board approval.

"My judgement was not good in terms of the hiring of that person," said Potter, who said the creation of the job was necessary to meet the challenges created by rising costs at Dulles International.  Rep. Edwards asked the officials if they should remain in their positions given the agency's record.

"I would hope so," Curto said, pointing to the measures MWAA has approved to revamp its ethics, travel, and contracting policies as well as terminate contracts granted to former or current board members.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified that MWAA has indeed revamped its policies, adding that its leaders understand reforms must be successful if the agency is going to receive additional federal funding to pay for the Silver Line, whose first phase of construction is scheduled for completion late next year.

"Phase I has worked pretty well. It really has. I think Phase II will work equally well because when you talk to these folks now in charge of MWAA, a new CEO and president, a relatively new chairman, they get it," said LaHood.  "These people get it.  They do. They know this has to be done correctly."

"They have pending before us a TIFIA loan. We're not going to give them a TIFIA loan if they are not doing things correctly.  They know that," added LaHood, referring to the federal loan program for major transportation projects.

In August, LaHood sent the MWAA a blistering letter questioning the board’s ethics and laying out steps the authority must take to get in line.

Phase II construction of the Silver Line is supposed to begin next year.

Watch a video of Friday's hearing here.

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Transportation Nation

Proposed Silver Line Toll Hike Vexes Virginians

Friday, September 07, 2012

Higher tolls are coming to the Dulles Toll Road next January. The question remains how high.

The public had its first chance to weigh in on projected toll increases at an open house Thursday night organized by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the agency running the Silver Line rail project that will heavily rely on increased toll revenues for its financing.

The Silver Line is a 23-mile rail link connecting Washington, D.C to Dulles International Airport and beyond into the Virginia suburbs. Its projected cost is $5.5 billion.

Effective January, the one-way full toll would increase to $2.75, then to $3.50 in 2014, and $4.50 in 2015, under current toll projections.  Rates would continue to rise two dollars every five years for the next four decades unless other sources of funding are secured to mitigate the toll increases.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Bayush Radadaya of Ashburn, who drives the Dulles Toll Road to work. “Right now I can afford it but once it doubles I cannot because gas prices are so much.”

Unlike a typical public hearing where residents take turns speaking into a microphone to a panel of officials, the event inside a high school cafeteria in Ashburn was informal. MWAA officials were on hand to answer questions, residents could read about the project on posters displaying charts and maps, and submit written comments into a cardboard box.

“You can throw a comment on a card but I’m not quite sure you necessarily have input,” said Pete Sabbatino of Ashburn. “The most input you are going to get is if someone read’s your comment card.  It’s being dictated to you.”

The Airports Authority says public feedback will be taken seriously when establishing the new toll rates later this year.

“The benefit of the [open house] is that we have an opportunity to educate people about the project,” said MWAA CEO Jack Potter.

Toll revenues are projected to cover about 50 percent of the Silver Line’s total estimated $5.5 billion cost.  The project was split into two phases; the tolls would cover 75 percent of Phase 2’s cost of $2.7 billion, under current projections.

Critics of the financing arrangement point to the lack of federal funding ($900 million for Phase 1, none for Phase 2) and relatively small contribution by the state of Virginia ($150 million).  Potter says the airports authority is working to increase those figures, which would reduce the toll increases and give drivers a break. MWAA is requesting a loan under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program.

“It’s a 2.4 percent loan versus what we’re able to get in the open bond market of about six percent, so that would significantly lower our cost for financing the debt,” said Potter, who said Virginia’s contribution of $150 enabled MWAA to delay the $4.50 one-way, full toll rate until 2015. It was originally projected to take effect next year.

To Loudoun County resident Daniel Davies, the plan to finance a rail project out of the pockets of car commuters is unfair.

“"The toll rates plus what the toll avoidance is going to do to our communities and the traffic along Route 7 and Route 28 is just going to be gridlock,” said Davies, referring to drivers who will dodge the higher tolls on the highway by clogging already congested local and state roads.

Davies said he opposes the Virginia state legislature providing any additional funding for the Silver Line because the state already handed over the Dulles Toll Road to MWAA, an asset valued at more than $3 billion during the administration of Gov. Tim Kaine.

Read more TN coverage of the Silver Line here.

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Transportation Nation

DC's Silver Line Reaches Construction Milestone

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Workers use a truss to lower the 380-tons of concrete span into place. (Photo by Armando Trull/WAMU)

(Armando Trull - Washington, DC, WAMU) The Silver Line to Dulles marked a major milestone Tuesday. Construction crews are fitting into place the final span for the bridges to carry the Silver Line trains.

"This marks the completion of the aerial structure of this project through Tyson's Corner," says Patrick Nowakowski, the executive director of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project. "We have over three miles of aerial structure and this is the last span being set into place."

The crews are using a truss longer than a football field to lift and move the 380-ton span, made up of 12 custom-cast concrete segments.

"Obviously when you're picking up anything this heavy and you have workers underneath it, you have to be very careful and do this in a safe manner," Nowakowski said. "We've been at this for several years now, so we've got it pretty well perfected, we take our time and we do it the right way."

When completed in late 2013, the span will carry trains over the Capital Beltway and into the heart of the largest employment center in Virginia -- Tyson's Corner. Eventually, the line will extend to Washington Dulles International Airport.

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Transportation Nation

Loudoun County Votes Yes On Silver Line To Dulles Airport

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

(UPDATED 7:56PM) The final political obstacle to completing the Silver Line rail project to Dulles International Airport and west into the suburbs was removed on Tuesday when the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted 5-4 to “opt in” to the Phase 2 of the 23-mile, $6 billion commuter rail line.

The affirmative vote was greeted with a degree of relief.  Had Loudoun County opted out, the project would have been delayed by at least 18 months.  The remaining stakeholders would have been left to redesign the proposed route in order to eventually connect the Silver Line to the airport but no further into the county, where two Metro stops were planned.

“I’m relieved. It’s a big day for Loudoun. It’s a big day for my constituents,” said Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), whose district will be the location of the last of 11 stops once the Silver Line is completed in 2018.

Buona can thank Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) for providing the decisive swing vote.  Reid had been leaning toward voting to opt out for weeks, but late last week moved to supporting the project once the board decided to create special tax districts around the future Metro stops to finance the county’s $270 million commitment to the Silver Line.

“I didn’t change my mind,” Reid said.  “What happened was that we did a motion for the tax district, so I didn’t change my mind. The tax district takes the risk off the county’s taxpayers.”

In the special districts, commercial properties will be taxed at a high rate, sparing residential properties, because they stand to benefit the most from the presence of Metro.  But supervisors who opposed “opting in” argued the tax revenue projections are flimsy.

“Everything I have looked at… really turns my stomach.  There are so many aspects of [this project] that are not going to help the county.  In fact, if you list the pros and list the cons, the cons far outweigh the pros at this time,” said Supervisor Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge), who joined Supervisors Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin), Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian), and Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) in voting against the county’s participation.

The months of contentious political debate did not reflect public opinion.  While the county supervisors battled (and a vocal minority pressured elected officials to opt out), public opinion polls showed overwhelming support for bringing Metro to Loudoun.

The agency running the project, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, may now proceed with seeking bids from contractors.

“We’ve worked very closely with Loudoun to give them the information they needed to make this important decision and we are very happy that they are going to be a partner with us and Fairfax to move this important project forward,” said Patrick Nowakowski, who runs the rail project for MWAA. “In the next few weeks we will initiate the procurement process to hire a firm to design and build this project for us.”

MWAA will also begin setting the higher toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road, which are expected to finance 75 percent of Phase 2’s costs.  Starting next year tolls are projected to increase to $9 round trip for a full toll.

“This is the way the [funding partners] came up with up to make this project and we are just trying to be good stewards of the public money and deliver the project as inexpensively as we can,” said Nowakowski.

There is no federal money involved in Phase 2 of the Silver Line (Phase 1 had $900 million federal dollars).  The plan did not meet federal criteria for ridership and population density, so the financing burden fell further on users of the Dulles Toll Road, who will be faced with significantly higher tolls without access to Metro until 2018, when the Silver Line is supposed to be finished.

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Transportation Nation

Virginia County Still on the Fence about Funding Silver Line to Dulles

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Construction crews work on the Silver Line to Dulles International Airport in Virginia.  (Photo CC by Flickr user Wayan Vota)

With time running down to a critical deadline, the Loudoun County, Virginia Board of Supervisors is weighing a range of options to pay for the $270 million commitment to Phase 2 of the Silver Line Metro rail project to Dulles Airport.  The alternatives under consideration — and the scant time to reach a decision — are raising questions long asked by the project's critics, who say the multi-billion dollar undertaking is poorly planned and unfair to local taxpayers.

Loudoun County lawmakers have until July 4 to decide whether to opt out of the $2.7 billion project that would complete the rail link between the Washington D.C. Metro system, the airport and beyond it into the county suburbs.  Phase 1 of the Silver line will end short of the airport at Wiehle Avenue in Reston.

The Loudoun County Board will hold a work session Monday, June 18 on the proposed funding options, which include creating special tax districts to tax developers around the planned Metro stops, a countywide transportation service district that would provide money for both rail and road improvements and a commercial and industrial tax.

Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles), who is leaning toward voting to opt into the project, released a letter to his constituents on Tuesday in which he laid out the financing options and his reasons for supporting the county's participation in the project.

"Depending on exactly how we finance the project, the amount that we'll have to spend each year is fairly easily absorbed in the budget without having to do anything significant to raise taxes," said Letourneau, who has argued that the county's general fund could  possibly cover the Phase 2 costs.

The board would not have adequate time to actually implement any long-term financing plan before the July 4 deadline, but may present to the public a framework of its intentions.  Some supervisors say a mere framework is inadequate considering the potential burden on taxpayers for years to come.

"It's going to take a combination of having a dedicated funding for highways, buses, and rail for me to support the project," said Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg), who is leaning toward voting to opt out.  "I would love to have a special tax district. The problem is there are not a lot of tax ratables there to keep the rate reasonable," referring to the current lack of development around the future Metro stops west of the airport, a sentiment shared by Letourneau.

"Frankly, those [tax districts] would not generate a tremendous amount of revenue, especially in the next couple years, because our areas are not developed," Letourneau said. However, as he described in his letter to constituents, Letourneau is satisfied the county can afford the project and should opt in while still figuring out the financing.

Supervisor Reid said the process is backwards.  "If you don't get economic development, which is very likely because it is at the end of the rail line, then taxpayers are stuck holding the bag," he said.

Reid also doubts a tax only on businesses would work. "If you tax our businesses only to pay for Metro, it puts them at a disadvantage to businesses in Fairfax, Prince William and other jurisdictions," said Reid, pointing to Loudoun's less densely developed landscape. "The promise of Metro for Loudoun County is not what a lot of people think it will be."

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Transportation Nation

Virginia Budget Passes Without Silver Line Funding

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Rendering of a future Metro station in Tysons Corner, Virginia (image courtesy of Fairfax County)

(Sharon Rae -- Washington, DC, WAMU) In a swift legislative turn of events, the Virginia Senate abruptly passed the $85 billion state budget Wednesday -- without including money for a Metrorail extension to Dulles Airport.

The bill had been voted down three times in the past two months.

One moderate Democrat, Sen. Charles Colgan of Prince William County, broke with his party and joined Republicans to give the budget the one-vote majority required for passage. Colgan had been pushing Gov. Bob McDonnell for $300 million for the Metrorail extension to Dulles Airport, but he said the need to pass the budget outweighed the need to secure funding for the Silver Line project.

Democrats had balked yesterday over the Republicans' refusal to grant the funding for the Metrorail extension to Dulles, saying the costs for commuters who use the Dulles Toll Road would rise from $2.25 to $6.75 one-way within a few years. They argued that the sharp increase was an undue burden that could stifle the economy of Northern Virginia — a region that provides 40 percent of Virginia's tax revenue.

The budget bill now goes to the governor for consideration.

Meanwhile, officials in Virginia's Loudon County are deciding whether or not it wants to go ahead and shoulder its share of the construction costs.

You can listen to the audio version of this story here. More TN coverage of the Silver Line can be found here.

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