With all the activity happening right now on the local zoning front, between the 23-story office tower and the golf course, you might think that we at RCA would have to put the Silver Line and the toll issue on the back burner. Not so. We have remained active in speaking out and seeking solutions to ensure that the Metro line is properly funded.
On Monday morning, I and a couple of my Board colleagues (John Hanley and Terry Maynard) had breakfast with a couple members of the MWAA Board: Tom Davis, former Congressman and current Vice Chair of the MWAA Board, and Rusty Conner, chair of MWAA's Finance Committee. We had a frank and enjoyable discussion, and we emerged from the meeting with some thoughts on a way forward in order to reduce the burden on the Dulles Toll Road users.
We at RCA went into the meeting with a couple of goals. We wanted to urge MWAA to aim to reduce Toll Road users' share of the project funding to 25%, as envisioned in the original 2004 funding agreement for the project. To that end, we asked them to consider a short-term solution when MWAA meets to approve the upcoming toll rates. We recommended only approving rates for the coming year, rather than for the next two or three years, to give us all another year to seek out additional funding. And we asked them to consider raising the tols only to $2.60, rather than the proposed $2.75. The $2.60 rate would be in line with the 25% toll contribution we've recommended. And finally, we wanted to know what they're doing to seek alternative sources of funding to keep the toll hikes in check.
On the first point, Tom and Rusty said that 25% is not likely to be a feasible target for user contributions, but they agreed that the currently proposed toll hikes are too high. So they share our commitment to bring those hikes down. They know there's a problem, and they're looking for a solution just as we are.
On our second issue, they agreed to consider our reduced toll hike; Rusty said he'd discuss it with the Finance Committee. Regarding our proposal for a one-year hike only, Rusty argued that a two- or three-year plan would assure bond buyers that the necessary funding will be in place, which would make it easier to sell the bonds to finance the project. They did agree to discuss a one-year hike, though.
The issue of alternative funding sources yielded the most interesting discussion. Tom and Rusty said that the MWAA Board was considering some ideas to contribute more on their end, including a couple ideas that RCA has endorsed: tolling the Access Road, and adding a parking surcharge at the airport. (We also discussed the idea of raising other airport-related fees, but Tom pointed out that these rates are controlled by Congress, and that they are not allowed to use aviation funds to pay for non-aviation projects.) Rusty also indicated that MWAA hopes to receive favorable news on the TIFIA loans from the US Department of Transportation by the end of the year.
But those added funds are not going to solve the toll issue by themselves, and Tom and Rusty acknowledged that. In order to get the tolls down, we're going to need to find funds from a lot of different sources. A little bit of money from a lot of places adds up, and it's more realistic to get that than to find a lot of money from any one place.
So we asked them how we could help in securing additional money for the project (since, alas, RCA doesn't have a few million to spare). They said that the way we could be most helpful was to keep the public pressure up on this issue, and to work on building a coalition of interested parties to push for a solution.
The current Silver Line funding scheme is an example of what economists call the "tragedy of the commons." A brief explanation for non-economists: Imagine that ten of us jointly own a field where we our cattle graze. All of us know that if we let our cattle eat too much of the grass, the field's going to die. But there's nothing stopping me, as an individual rancher, from buying more and more cows to graze in that field, because I make more money the more cows I have, and if I let them eat from the field, I don't have to buy them feed. But if all of us keep buying more cows, eventually they're going to eat all the grass.
In this example, we Toll Road users are the grass. And all the other parties (the counties, the Commonwealth of Virginia, the federal government, and MWAA) are the ranchers. Even though they all agree in principle that the proposed tolls are too high, they don't want to kick in the money to reduce the burden. They'd rather have someone else solve the problem. But if everyone points fingers instead of ponying up some money, then the grass is going to disappear and the field will die. What that means in this case: massive driver diversion to avoid the Toll Road, which will result in clogged sufface streets and, possibly, toll collections falling to the point where they can't pay off the bonds.
The solution, obviously, is for everyone to give a little more. But no one has the power to force everyone else to give more. So that's where RCA comes in. By continuing our campaign to make everyone aware of the looming toll hikes, we'll increase public pressure on our elected officials to find the money. And taking Tom and Rusty's words to heart, we will reach to other groups that will be affected by the tolls and work with them to keep the heat on until we solve the problem.
And the governments involved should consider this: you can pay up front now and keep the tolls low, or you can pay more later. Because if high tolls lead to drivers avoiding the Toll Road, you'll need to pay for widening the secondary streets to relieve the traffic congestion. You'll pay in terms of lost economic development if the gridlock leads businesses to locate elsewhere. And in the worst-case scenario, if toll collections fall to the point where you can't pay off the bonds, someone's going to have to pay then.
Tom and Rusty also pointed out a seemingly unrelated avenue to provide more funds for the project: more flights out of Dulles Airport. There have been a lot of improvements at Dulles in recent years, and MWAA's paying a lot for the debt on those. If there were more flights out of Dulles, MWAA would collect more in ticket and aviation fees, which would free up more money to apply toward the Silver Line. (Also, if they do decide to toll the Access Road and/or add a parking surcharge, more flights means more revenue from those areas.)
But currently, Dulles is undersubscribed for domestic flights. Why? Because Congress keeps expanding domestic service out of Reagan National, which is already bursting at the seams. Congress likes to fly out of Reagan National because it's more convenient for them. But the overcrowding at National and the undersubscription at Dulles hurts both airports, as well as the Silver Line project. Therefore, if you're interested in keeping the tolls down, you should oppose the expansion of flights out of Reagan National. We at RCA will keep alert on the issue, and stand up to oppose it whenever Congress considers adding flights at National.
Finally, Tom and Rusty made a request unrelated to the funding issue. They asked that we give credit to the MWAA staff for their work in managing Phase 1 of the Silver Line project. They don't mind if we bash the Board (and they freely admitted that it's been dysfunctional), but they said the staff shouldn't be tarred with the same brush. And I'm happy to give credit where it's due. Phase I has been well-managed, without major cost overruns or schedule delays. Kudos to the MWAA staff for their efforts, and if Phase 2 runs as smoothly as Phase 1 did, I will be very happy.
I also want to thank Tom and Rusty for reaching out to us, listening to our concerns, speaking frankly about the challenges they face, and offering some possible solutions. It seems to me that the MWAA Board is making real strides to be more open and responsive to public concern. (In a similar vein, MWAA CEO Jack Potter attended the public meeting at South Lakes earlier this month, and spent a good half-hour discussing the project with RCA representatives and interested citizens.) I'm encouraged by their efforts.
Now, RCA will be making its own effort. We're going to keep up the fight on the toll issue, and keep up the public pressure to seek additional funds. We're going to reach out to potential allies and form coalitions wherever we can. All the parties to this project will need to step up and dig a little deeper, but we can find the money to keep the tolls down and avoid the tragedy of the commons.