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Transportation Nation

Should Virginia Build Another Highway? Study for "Outer Beltway" Released

Thursday, April 25, 2013

WAMU

Plans for a major highway in Northern Virginia are taking shape. Officials say the billion-dollar road would spur growth, but opponents say that premise is flawed.

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Transportation Nation

MWAA Votes to Raise Fees on Dulles Toll Road

Thursday, November 15, 2012

(photo by bankbryan via flickr)

The agency managing the largest public rail expansion in the nation voted to increase tolls on a Virginia highway in part to help fund construction of the Silver Line.

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority unanimously approved raising the full, one-way toll on the Dulles Toll Road to $2.75 effective January 1, an increase of $.50.  In January 2014 toll will increase to $3.50.

The toll increases are a major part of the financing plan for the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport, a 23-mile, $5.5 billion project whose first phase is scheduled for completion late next year. The MWAA board put off a decision to increase tolls again in 2015 because of the possibility of obtaining additional state and/or federal dollars.

MWAA has two avenues to secure additional funds: Virginia’s General Assembly, which has provided only $150 million to date, and the federal TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loan program.

“Our project is, bar none, (one) of the more worthy projects in the country for TIFIA loan financing,” said MWAA Board Chairman Michael Curto in remarks to reporters after the agency’s vote. “We’ve seen the enhanced TIFIA loan program so we’re positioned well, given that the project is shovel ready.  We’re ready to move."

Curto is not the only public official who has expressed optimism a federal loan with come through.  However, MWAA has a lot of competition for TIFIA dollars. Nineteen major transportation projects totaling $27 billion are currently applying for loans, and Congress has authorized $1.75 billion for TIFIA the next two fiscal years.

“The pool is very small compared to what the needs are just for our rail system,” said Terry Maynard, a board member of the Reston Citizens Association, which represents 58,000 residents in a Fairfax County tax district.  “It's going to be very hard to get a significant contribution.”

The association opposes not the Silver Line’s construction but its financing plan, which leaves fifty percent of the entire project’s cost on Dulles Toll Road users (75 percent of Phase II).

“We really want this to get built and succeed,” Maynard said. “We are pressing that all the money [MWAA] receives relieve the burden on toll road users.” Fairfax County residents have relayed their concerns to MWAA that drivers looking to avoid higher tolls will opt for already congested secondary roads, further clogging their communities with traffic.

Curto promised that MWAA will lobby Richmond for additional funding. He declined to criticize the McDonnell administration’s spending priorities, which have seen hundreds of millions of dollars allocated for highway expansions.

“We are going to reach out, work closely and hope to encourage the governor’s administration and the folks in Richmond that Dulles Rail should be the recipient of additional funds.  As Secretary LaHood said, it is a model project,” Curto said.

 

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Transportation Nation

Some Air Travelers Are Actually Happy. Yes, You Read That Right

Thursday, September 27, 2012

“It's game-changing. Amazing. It's the best.”

In the 11 years since Al-Qaeda terrorists used passenger planes as weapons on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, air travelers have rarely used such words to describe the airport security experience. But that could be changing at airports across the country.

“It honestly has changed everything,” says Neal Lassila, a tech company executive, describing how easily he sails through security now thanks to the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program.

Lassila was interviewed by Transportation Nation after taking all of 90 seconds to pass through a new screening checkpoint at Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington that was built specifically for PreCheck “known travelers.”

“I travel quite a bit so getting in and out of security was a bit of a hassle,” the Los Angeles resident said.

Lassila didn’t have to take off his shoes or belt -- or even open his bag -- on the way through the checkpoint.  He had been pre-screened after successfully applying for the TSA program through his airline as a frequent flier.  His ‘known traveler’ number is now embedded in the bar code of his boarding pass.

TSA officials invited reporters to attend a news conference inside the Dulles main terminal on Tuesday to check out the new checkpoint and interview travelers who have been accepted into the PreCheck program, which marks a shift in the one-size-fits-all security template used on all travelers after 9/11.

“I had to give them my driver’s license, a working passport, and I had to show them my birth certificate to prove who I was and that the documents matched me,” said Rich Hubner, a Virginia resident who travels frequently for his environmental science career.

Hubner applied for the PreCheck expedited screening program through the government’s Global Entry system which requires a short, in-person interview with security personnel to verify his identity.  Becoming eligible for the program removed all the hassle of long lines at security checkpoints.

“Cooler minds have prevailed finally,” he said.

Dulles is the 26th airport where PreCheck is operating.  TSA hopes to expand the program to 35 airports by the end of the year.  Three million passengers have been screened through PreCheck to date, according to TSA administrator John Pistole.  But he said Dulles is a special case. “Dulles International is the first airport in the nation to build a new checkpoint that is dedicated only to TSA PreCheck operations,” he said at the news conference. “If we have determined that a passenger is eligible for expedited screening, that information will have been embedded on the bar code of your boarding pass.”

There are some caveats: only frequent fliers of certain airlines, like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, US Airways or Alaska Airlines are eligible right now.  And pre-screened passengers won't necessarily fly through security every time. The TSA website warns that the agency "will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening."

To see a list of airports that have PreCheck, go here.

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Transportation Nation

Lawsuit Says DC Airports Authority Can't Raise Tolls To Pay for Rail

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

(Washington, DC -- WAMU) The agency that's running the Silver Line rail project to Dulles Airport is holding public hearings on its plan to dramatically raise tolls on the Dulles Toll Road to pay for the project. But a Federal Court of Appeals will consider a lawsuit that could derail the project.

The class action suit argues the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) does not have the legal right to raise tolls on drivers to pay for trains. Only an elected legislature can raise tolls in order to pay for something other than the maintenance and operation of the Dulles Toll Road itself, the suit claims.

"A toll is a user fee. That means you are using something and you have to pay for the service," says attorney Robert Cynkar, who will argue the case before a federal appellate court in October. "A tax is anything above that where money is being taken from you to raise revenue for another project."

The lawsuit doesn't address whether the Silver Line should be built. It's focused only on whether the MWAA has the authority to raise taxes, which is how Cynkar characterizes the toll hikes.

Under the Virginia constitution, elected officials are the only people who can vote to raise taxes.

But is a higher toll really a tax? To the drivers who will be paying them starting in January, Cynkar says the answer might be yes.

"The issue of whether the Metro rail is a good idea, whether it makes sense for the economy, how much it should cost and all that, are different issues," Cynkar says. "We just say that if you are going to build this thing and you need to get revenue for it, you have to do it the constitutional way."

A lower court dismissed the case in July. According to Don Williamson, a professor of taxation at the Kogod School of Business at American University, the toll increases might legally be considered taxes — but that doesn't necessarily mean the airports authority is in the wrong.

"The public as a whole could interpret any collection of revenue for any purpose to be a form of tax that they are paying to the government," Williamson says. "And it becomes merely a technicality whether we call that collection a tax or a user fee."

For its part, the airports authority "continues to believe the appeal lacks merit, and we will respond appropriately in court," said a spokesman in a statement. The MWAA filed a response to the original suit in April. But Williamson says the appeals court will have room to draw a different conclusion.

"This is a legal issue, not a factual issue, so the Circuit Court of Appeals has more ability to interpret the law differently," he says, "and disagree with the district court."

(Disclosure: one of the plaintiffs Cynkar is representing is an American University law professor. WAMU 88.5 is licensed to American University.)

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Transportation Nation

Silver Line Vote Tuesday Could Stunt Rail-to-Dulles Plan

Monday, July 02, 2012

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) The Silver Line project is a 23-mile, $5.5 billion rail link to connect Washington, D.C to Dulles International Airport and beyond into the Loudoun County, Virginia suburbs.  When completed there will be 11 rail stops between the capital and the final stop in Ashburn. (See full specs here as a PDF.) It's an ambitious transit extension, one of the largest in the nation currently underway, and a critical vote Tuesday at 9 a.m. ET may shrink the plan significantly.

Phase I of the project is nearing completion.  Phase 2 is scheduled to start next year.  However, there is one more obstacle to overcome before construction may begin on time.

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to participate in the project.  The county’s commitment to Phase 2 is $270 million.  If the county decides to opt out, the project will be delayed by at least 18 months and will likely never extend beyond the airport.

Fairfax County and the state of Virginia are also committing funds to the Silver Line, but the bulk of the project run by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) will be financed by increased tolls on the Dulles Toll Road. Those tolls are projected to cover 75 percent of the $2.7 billion cost.

If Loudoun opts in, the project will start on time.  MWAA will begin setting higher toll rates this fall and begin soliciting bids from contractors.

Loudoun County’s board asked for an extension to decide if it will “opt out” of Phase 2 because of concerns over how financing the project would impact the county’s taxes. Last week, the board gave tentative approval to creating special tax districts around the future Metro stops west of the airport.

Check back to TN for updates after the vote.

Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter for live updates.

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Transportation Nation

Dulles Rail Supporters, Opponents Plead With Loudoun Board

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Phase 2 of the Metro Dulles rail project, known as the Silver Line, is either a boondoggle or the key to Loudoun County’s economic future, depending upon whom you ask.

Nearly 200 people packed a public hearing before the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Monday night to weigh in on whether the county should remain part of the $2.7 billion plan to connect Metro rail to Dulles International Airport and further into the county.

Loudoun County's financial commitment to Phase 2 will cost it $270 million. The Board of Supervisors has until July 4 to decide whether the municipality is in or out.

Vehement support — and opposition — for Silver line

In kelly green t-shirts printed with the words "Loudoun Rail Now," supporters outnumbered opponents at the public hearing. While fewer in number, anti-rail residents were nonetheless determined to convince the board to pull out of Phase 2.  Bob Constantino even wore a prop inside the Loudoun government center: a Viking helmet.

"During their time they were known for pillage, they were known for plunder and they were known for thievery," Constantino said of the Vikings. "It's my contention that the Metro Silver Line Phase 2 in the context of Loudoun County is virtual railway robbery."

Opponents do not support a project they fear might raise their taxes to benefit those who would ride the Metro beyond Dulles Airport. The county's long-term funding commitment is also a point of contention. Loudoun's operating budget for the future Metro stop at the airport itself would be $5 million-$7 million per year, even though county residents are not expected to heavily use it.

Supporters of the plan, including businesses, urged the board to keep its commitment to the project.

"…The long term benefits of the Dulles Rail project offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to Loudoun County," said Tony Howard, the president of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce.

Another pro-rail speaker, Mindy Williams, urged the board to see the Silver line as an opportunity. "The opportunity to increase the commercial tax base, the economic opportunity, and the ability to leverage the tremendous asset we have in Dulles airport…" she said.

Loudoun residents not the only ones divided

The nine-member board, composed entirely of Republicans, is split. Board chairman Scott York supports the project, but his colleagues on the board remain divided. The supervisors will weigh a variety of funding options, including the creating of new taxes, at another meeting Wednesday night.

Also on Wednesday, the board of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is expected to decide whether to drop a controversial pro-labor provision -- a project labor agreement or PLA -- for the entire project that would favor bidders that choose a union workforce to build Phase 2.

The PLA is a sticking point for the Loudoun County Board, but even if MWAA drops it, the county's support is not a sure thing.

Supporters worry about missed opportunity

"The worst thing about saying, 'no' is you don't want the project to end at Dulles Airport," said Carol Wilte, a 20-year employee at the airport and rail supporter. "You don't want to add all that commuter traffic on top of all the travelers going to and from an airport that already has $25 million passengers."

Phase 1, which is nearing completion, will terminate at the new Wiehle Avenue Metro station in Reston, requiring passengers to take another form of transportation to the airport.

If Loudoun opts out of Phase 2, the project will most likely be delayed significantly while MWAA and the state of Virginia seek funding options, including charging significantly higher tolls on the Dulles Toll Road.

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Transportation Nation

FTA Head: McDonnell To Pitch In $150 Million More To Dulles Metrorail

Friday, July 08, 2011

(Washington D.C. - WAMU) Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell may be pitching in more money to the Dulles Metrorail project, despite his recent complaints that its cost has grown too high.

Leaders at the local and state level in Virginia say they're worried the rising cost of the project will force fees on the Dulles Toll Road to rise painfully high. Money from tolls is paying for a large chunk of the plan to build a new Metro line to Dulles Airport.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff says, in the past few days, the McDonnell administration has told him it would contribute an additional $150 million to keep the tolls down.

McDonnell's transportation secretary, Sean Connaughton, won't confirm the offer, but he says it is one of the options under consideration.

Rogoff and other federal officials are working to mediate a dispute over the cost of the project between Northern Virginia's elected leaders and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Rogoff says if the dispute isn’t resolved soon, it could kill the plan.

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Transportation Nation

As Planners Decide to Put Station Underground, Intense Political Machinations Over Dulles Airport Train Station

Thursday, April 07, 2011

(Washington D.C. - David Schultz, WAMU) The construction of a subway line out to Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia is one of the largest public works projects in the country, with a price tag of around $6 billion.

With that kind of dough, politics is bound to seep into the process one way or another. And it definitely has, especially after a decision yesterday that puts local politicians here in a no-win situation.

Yesterday, the Board of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is overseeing the project, chose to locate the planned Metro station at Dulles underground, rather than above ground.

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The Board made this decision against the advice of almost every elected official in the region - local, state and federal. That's because the underground option is more than $300 million more expensive than an above ground alternative.

Airports Board members said they chose the more expensive option because

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Transportation Nation

The Paradox of the Dulles Airport Toll Road

Thursday, December 30, 2010

(Washington, D.C. -- David Schultz, WAMU) Nowadays, the cash toll roads generate is often put toward more than just the maintenance and upkeep of the road itself.

That's what's happening in Northern Virginia: the Dulles Toll Road connects the D.C. region to Dulles International Airport. The local Airports Authority here is using money from the road to pay for a new rail line that will run parallel to the road.

But how much money are they using? Therein lies the rub...

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