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Explaining RCA's Letter on Metro Funding

This week, I'm explaining why RCA believe that Virginia should spend its Silver Line Phase 2 funds to pay down the capital construction cost, rather than interest on MWAA's bonds.

As you know if you're a regular Patch reader, yesterday I issued a on the issue of Virginia's planned funding for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, and how it could best be applied. This may not be the easiest issue to understand, so I wanted to use this week's blog to explain RCA's position -- and why it matters how the state funds are spent.

It's definitely good news for the Silver Line and for the users of the Toll Road that the Commonwealth and MWAA were able to resolve their stand-off over the Project Labor Agreement.  MWAA agreed to in the bidding process, and the McDonnell administration agreed to provide the $150 million it had promised for Phase 2.  Although the $150 million is a small fraction of the overall cost of Phase 2, it's certainly better than nothing, and RCA is glad that the Commonwealth will be helping to finance the construction of Phase 2.

Our concern has to do with the way in which the state funds are applied.  RCA is proposing that the $150 million be used to buy down the capital costs of construction, rather than paying the interests on MWAA-issued revenue bonds used to finance the construction.  We believe that buying down capital provides Virginia and the project with much more bang for the buck.

At first glance, it may be hard to understand why we're making a big deal out of this.  After all, $150 million is $150 million no matter where it's spent, right?  In the end, shouldn't it all come off the bottom line the same?  Actually, no.  In order to understand why, let me use an analogy: buying a house.

Let's imagine that you've bought a house that cost, say, $300,000.  Unless you're fortunate enough to have that kind of cash on hand, you're going to finance your purchase by taking out a mortgage.  This allows you to pay off the cost of the house over 20 or 30 years, rather than needing to have the money upfront.

Of course, this comes at a cost.  Over the course of your mortgage, you're going to pay a lot more than $300,000, because of the interest.  When the bank loans you the money to buy your house, they demand a certain level of return to make it worth their while.  If you take out a 30-year mortgage at an interest rate of 5%, for example, you'll wind up paying about $575,000 over the life of the mortgage -- almost double the original cost.  As you can see, interest represents a significant cost when financing big-ticket items over an extended period of time.

MWAA faces the same situation when it comes to the Silver Line.  They don't have $3 billion on hand to pay for the project upfront, so they'll need issue revenue bonds (the equivalent of your home mortgage).  Depending on the interest yield they're able to get for the bonds, the overall financing cost for the Phase 2 could be as much as $15 billion.  Obviously, anything that can be done to deduce the finance cost of the project would be a boon.

Now, let's return to our analogy so I can explain RCA's position.  Imagine that you have a friend who's willing to pay $10,000 toward the cost of your house.  Would you be better off if he gave you the $10,000 as a down payment on the house, or if he applied the $10,000 on your mortgage payments?  If you're smart, you'll take the down payment, because it reduces the amount of money you'll have to finance, thus bringing down your interest costs.  Over the life of a 30-year mortgage, a $10,000 down payment will save you about $40,000 in total payments.  Same amount of money, different results.

The same is true for the Silver Line.  If Virginia's $150 million were used to pay for the capital cost of construction, it reduces the amount of bonding MWAA must do to pay for the project.  Again, depending on the interest yield on the bonds when they're issued, using Virginia's funds to pay for capital would produce approximately 3 to 5 times the total savings compared to using the funds to pay interest on the bonds.  More bang for our state-funding buck!

At this point, you may be thinking: the Commonwealth and MWAA surely have plenty of smart people who understand how finance works, so why would they even consider using the money for interest instead of capital?  The answer: The short-term toll rates.

As we all know, MWAA will be paying for its share of the project by raising tolls on the Dulles Toll Road.  How much those toll rates will need to rise obviously matters to everyone involved, but how fast they go up might matter just as much to some, especially for elected officials who might suffer near-term punishment at the voting booth if the tolls spike quickly.

If the state funds are used to pay the interest on MWAA's bonds, it allows MWAA to delay the proposed toll increases in the short term.  (Returning once more to our house analogy: If you used your friend's $10,000 to pay your mortgage instead of making a down payment, your total expenses in the first year of your mortgage would be lower, because your friend is paying most of the freight that year.)  Otherwise, MWAA contends, the only way they could reduce the short-term toll increases would be to issue a different type of bond that would require a higher yield.

But is it worth it to delay the pain of toll increases for a couple of years if it costs us more over the life of the project?  Short-term thinking has wreaked a lot of havoc in our economy in recent years.  We're going to be paying for Phase 2 for decades, so let's spend our money wisely.  I hope that MWAA and the Commonwealth will do the right thing, and make the smartest decision for the long term.

I want to thank RCA's research wizard, Terry Maynard, for being the first to point out this concern and for crunching the numbers that went into my letter.  Terry and RCA's are still working hard and remaining vigilant to ensure that the Silver Line brings greater benefits and fewer costs to the citizens of Reston.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

the-stix July 11, 2012 at 11:42 PM
Kudos to the RCA for pointing out a better way for using the VA $150 million pledge. However where is the focused effort.. and I mean FOCUSED EFFORT by the liberal leaning RCA to influence the Federal and Fairfax County Democratic Party leadership to do whatever it takes to force the MWAA to make concessions to relieve toll road users from the astronomical increases forecasted. For example, how about charging tolls to airport travelers using the access road (now free) as a start?
Bob Bruhns July 12, 2012 at 10:44 AM
Where was the concern about the $1.5 billion of overcharge in Dulles Rail Phase II? It's pretty obvious in any honest evaluation. Why was there absolutely no concern about that? $150 million is important - so why wasn't $1.5 billion of any concern? Compared to that glaring $1.5 Billion overchage, optimizing the $150 million investment is a lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, as it sank.
Colin Mills July 12, 2012 at 01:16 PM
Thanks for the comment, the-stix. Actually, RCA has been very vocal about advocating solutions to reduce the forecast toll increases. We've written numerous reports and white papers on the subject, and spoken to elected officials at the county, state, and federal level. We suggested the specific solution of tolling the Access Road in a report we wrote in April of 2011. You can read it here (see Page ii in the Summary section): http://www.scribd.com/doc/54320216/The-Impacts-of-Increased-Phase-2-Dulles-Metrorail-Construction-Costs-FINAL-04272011
Colin Mills July 12, 2012 at 01:18 PM
Bob, where are you getting the "$1.5 billion of overcharge" figure? I'm not aware of any study that's found that.
the-stix July 12, 2012 at 03:36 PM
I am fully aware of Terry’s and RCA’s DTR toll proposals. RCA aspires to be the catalyst and even the leadership farm team from which Reston will be governed, if Reston ever gets town status. If the best the RCA can do is 'to be vocal and write reports', but not make things happen, especially in partnership with other politically aligned federal and regional leaders, it is a sad tale indeed. Of course the RCA, even in concert with others, can not guarantee success in making the MWAA moderate the current DTR toll plan, but merely being vocal and writing reports is hardly what I would call a "focused effort". And it certainly does not strengthen the RCA's credentials for any leadership role in a future Town of Reston.
Colin Mills July 13, 2012 at 01:42 AM
What would you consider a "focused effort"? Writing reports and speaking to public officials has a real effect on the discussion. Our political leaders, and the folks at MWAA, have read our reports and responded to them, responses we've explored in our discussions with them. And our reports and white papers have received attention in the media, raising public awareness. A public response is what will ultimately drive our elected officials to work with MWAA and take action. I think we've done quite a bit on this issue, and we're certainly not done with it. I'm sorry if we're not making things happen quickly enough, but I don't really understand your complaint. We're working with what's available to us. If you have any specific suggestions on how we can make our efforts more effective, I'd be happy to hear about them.
Bob Bruhns July 13, 2012 at 01:57 AM
In fairness, yours wasn't the only group that missed this issue. I'm just surprised that none of the people who took great financial interest in how the Dulles Partnership toll and financing plan was flawed, ever picked up on the numerous discussions of the massive overcost of the project. A number of documentation sources were cited repeatedly, and cost estimates based on the information in them were in pretty good agreement, regarding the magnitude of the Dulles Rail overcharge. Furthermore, a serious blunder by the FTA in its July 3, 2011 White Paper was noted many times, and it should have attracted interest in the poor quality of the rest of their work. It seems that I was not the only person who knew nothing about such costs. The difference was that I studied the subject and learned. And while I did that, I noted the work that other groups were doing, and even looked into it and referenced it in my comments. Unfortunately, the groups were only concerned that the costs of Dulles Rail should not come out of their own pockets. None seemed concerned about the excessive costs of Dulles Rail itself. If your group had been interested, you might have picked up on it - it would have taken you about half an hour. Check this early work - as the picture became clearer, I added further documents and adjusted the comparison, but it was posted in multiple article comments. http://herndon.patch.com/blog_posts/massively-excessive-costs-in-dulles-rail-phase-ii
the-stix July 13, 2012 at 09:17 AM
My complaint is the same as yours... the MWAA's projected DTR tolls are too high. And to this, all local leaders and entities including the RCA wring their hands and complain about them but the MWAA stands firm, and as far as the public knows they are doing nothing. My question to you Mr. Mills is what have they committed to do as a result of your reports and meetings, other than perhaps serve coffee and say that the RCA writes nice reports? And my suggestion assuming the answer to my question is ‘nothing’, what has the RCA done to assemble or be part of a coalition of funding partners and Congressional and DOT political leaders (and anyone else) to get at least a firm MWAA commitment and date to say how they will bring the DTR users burden down from the ridiculous current plan. Bottom line, merely writing reports and having meetings is not the proactive approach that will get the job done. Nor frankly does it measure up to what I expect of an organization that purports to represent some 50 thousand Restonians. I don’t expect miracles, but I do expect a “focused effort” on a problem as critical as this.
Colin Mills July 13, 2012 at 12:55 PM
Thanks for the link, Bob. I'll make sure to read the documents you posted.
Bob Bruhns July 13, 2012 at 01:23 PM
Thanks, Colin. Also, I noticed last night that the link to the Fairfield Connecticut rail station information is defective. That is most unfortunate, because that information is a central item. The corrected link appears further down in the comments.
the-stix July 13, 2012 at 11:30 PM
Mr. Mills.. Before you run too far with what Mr.Bruhns has said, I suggest you consult with Terry Maynard who I am certain has followed this saga on another local forum. The $1.5 billion assertion has been submitted to many if not most of the Dulles Rail funding partners and apparently not one has found it relevant or serious enough to even respond. That in itself is testimony to the veracity of his rediciolus claim.
Bob Bruhns July 15, 2012 at 11:49 AM
Speaking of ridiculous claims, keep in mind that the entities stix mentioned claim that the cost of the Rt 28 station and the five Phase II parking garages just disappeared from the Dulles Rail Phase II job, because they got dumped onto the counties. Keep in mind also that stix thinks that the answer to excessive prices is a wire transfer of borrowed money. He forgets that borrowed money is actually supposed to be... paid back. Take a look at the evidence of massive overcharge. Note also that MWAA further jacked up the costs of the Rt 28 station and those parking garages by 26% to 29% in the year since July 2011 when the FTA leaked those costs, that were already about 80% bloated then. Don't be misdirected by some masked, pen-name poster - look at the facts.

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