The biggest revelation Tuesday night regarding Loudoun’s potential participation in Metro’s Silver Line extension appeared to be the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s expectation that the county would cover operation and maintenance costs as well as participate in Metro’s capital program, even if the Board of Supervisors opts out of the project.
WMATA is the entity that operates Metro, while the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is the entity constructing the project. While MWAA, which also controls Dulles Airport and the Dulles Toll Road, has been tasked with construction and will participate in phase two of the Silver Line project, it will not be responsible for operation and maintenance costs.
Shiva Pant, Metro’s chief of staff, first mentioned the airport station costs, noting that the station would be within Loudoun’s borders, despite being on airport property.
“Under our board policy, the subsidy for that one station would be allocated to Loudoun, based on the formula as described,” he said.
The notion irked several board members, including County Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large), who openly supports participation in the project with the caveat that unions are not required and contractors are not rewarded for using them.
“If the Loudoun board so chooses to opt out, opt out means opt out,” York said. “We’ll fight the fact that we’re going to be held that $9 million if we opt out. There is no way we’re going to opt out, but we’re still going to pay.”
York likely referred to the annual operation and maintenance costs by 2025 if Loudoun opts out, minus the capital program. The figures provided by WMATA show Loudoun would be responsible for $11 million annually for operation, maintenance and the capital program by 2018 and $14.6 million by 2025 if the county opts out. If Loudoun participates and the two stations beyond the airport are constructed—at Route 606 and 772—those costs rise to $16.3 million in 2018 and $21.5 by 2025.
Those annual costs are in addition to the construction costs for the Silver Line. Loudoun's share for that is estimated at $260 million, which includes Loudoun's share for phase one that comes due if the county participates in phase two.
“I think it would be foolhardy for anybody to assume that the agreement we’re under right now, having an opt-in period or an opt-out period, precludes us from opting out,” said Supervisor Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian), adding that Loudoun should not be responsible for airport property it doesn't control. “Our Loudoun County Sheriff’s deputies are not allowed on that property.”
A member of Loudoun’s transportation staff said WMATA would likely send the bill to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission if Loudoun opts out. York said he would fight any attempt by the NVTC to take the money from Loudoun’s share of gas tax allocations.
Supervisor Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run) said the news makes it that much clearer to him that Loudoun is better off participating in the project.
“As it stands now we’re on the hook. It’s ultimately going to come to the airport and Loudoun County’s going to pay for it significantly,” he said, asking colleagues not to make up their minds against rail yet.
“Now we’re starting to get the real numbers,” he said, adding that if Loudoun opts out, “the message that we’ll be sending to the business community, not to mention the negative impact this will have on our economic development efforts, will be severe. They want this rail.”
But many board members have continued to express their doubts about the benefits of Metro stations in Loudoun.
Leesburg Supervisor Ken Reid (R) said he was concerned about the new lower figures for operation and maintenance costs for the county. In particular, he questioned the ridership estimates for the Loudoun stations, to which there apparently is no scientific answer. The number is key because it’s one-third of the factor used to determine Loudoun's share.
And while Loudoun’s staff is conducting a study to look at parking demand for the two Ashburn stations, it will not provide information about rider destinations, which Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) said was key to determining whether the Rosslyn tunnel could handle the additional capacity.
However, a WMATA representative told Higgins that some Blue Line trains would be relabeled Yellow Line and rerouted across another bridge.
Higgins also raised concerns about the rising costs for jurisdictions participating in WMATA’s program, wondering whether it was driven by the cost of union employees that comprise 8,000 of WMATA’s 11,000-member workforce.
Supervisor Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) questioned the ridership numbers and, along with Higgins, wanted better information about that estimate.
“I think the ridership question is very big for this board, really,” she said. “I have a very difficult time digesting all of this and conveying the information to the constituency on what it’s going to cost, what the benefit is going to be for them ridership-wise.”
The costs for riders would max out at $6, and Loudoun would subsidize longer trips. Anyone heading to DC, is likely to have to pay the full $6, with rides to Tysons Corner and Reston likely costing less.
“We know, at least I know, the folks that ride Metro, the majority of them, or the folks that ride the bus to get to work are going to Washington, DC, or the Pentagon, places like that,” Clarke said.
Reid said he preferred bus service and called it “patently unfair” to subsidize rail riders with toll fares on the Dulles Toll Road, which currently are expected to fund a significant share of the project.
York, despite his concerns about Loudoun’s responsibility if it opts out, said he supports rail to Loudoun.
“There’s no question it’s a tough decision,” he said, but pointed to problems constructing any type of additional road network instead of rail. “We have no ability to construct another corridor that is east-west.”
York also said it would help the county develop its commercial tax base.
Additional work sessions are planned as the board continues to weigh the ups and downs of participating in the project. Visit the county’s web page on the project to learn more.