U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today asked the key players for the jeopardized rail to Dulles Airport project to reduce the second phase’s $3.5 billion price tag within 30 days.
LaHood called the meeting with the hope of tempering the friction with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board since its April decision to build a more expensive underground station at Dulles Airport.
That decision increased the project cost by $300 million. Original estimates for the project came in at $2.5 billion, and that’s the figure on which stakeholders are focused.
MWAA’s decision upset state and federal leaders and its funding partners in Loudoun and Fairfax counties. Representatives from both Fairfax and Loudoun counties have threatened to derail the project’s second phase, and Loudoun might refuse to pay its share. Fairfax agreed to pay 16.1 percent and Loudoun 4.8 percent for the entire rail project.
LaHood asked that officials with MWAA, Fairfax and Loudoun counties continue to meet with a goal of providing him within 30 days a list of ways to reduce the price tag for Phase 2, according to Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova.
The stakeholders will meet again Friday, Bulova said.
“Nobody caved, but there was agreement that we would work together in good faith,” Bulova said.
MWAA board members, Loudoun County Chairman Scott York and Congressmen Frank Wolf and Gerry Connolly, were also at the meeting.
Bulova did not say what LaHood indicated could happen if the group cannot agree to reduce costs of the second phase. She also wouldn’t say if the group discussed with LaHood the opportunity for a federal loan that MWAA is banking on for the second phase.
Del. Ken Plum, (D-Reston), said MWAA risks not getting any federal loan for the second phase if it does not reduce the project’s cost closer to the original estimate of $2.5 billion. MWAA members earlier wanted as much as a $1.5 billion federal loan for phase 2.
“MWAA is going to eventually have to say ‘Oh gosh, we really do still like that tunnel, but to really finance this thing we are going to have to go with the aerial alignment,' " said Plum.
A lot is at stake for all of the funding partners if the second phase stalls or does not get built. Among those risks for MWAA is losing a rail station to the airport.
Loudoun County risks more than $200 million in net revenue through economic development near the new stations. Fairfax County risks overwhelming its Reston station because Loudouners would drive to Wiehle Avenue to ride the train. With the risks in mind, Bulova said Fairfax is still committed to finishing the second phase of the project.
“We already have a lot of skin in the game,” she said. “We worked very hard to get phase one under construction.”
The first 23-mile phase of the rail project is about a third complete and will bring four new stations to Tysons Corner and one off Wiehle Avenue in Reston.The second phase will extend to Dulles Airport and into eastern Loudoun County.
The MWAA board manages the project and the federal, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. governments appoint the 13 members.
The MWAA board chose the more expensive underground station at the airport because airport users would have easier access to the terminal and the view of the airport’s unique architectural design is preserved.
The trouble is that officials in Fairfax and Loudoun counties planned their financing of the project on a $2.5 billion price tag. Since then, pressure on MWAA to reverse its decision or find other ways to reduce at least $1 billion off the price tag has increased.
Bulova said having all of the stakeholders together at one table was beneficial.
“I appreciate the secretary making that opportunity available,” she said after the 45-minute meeting. “I thought the discussion was honest as far as putting on the table issues that need to be addressed.”
Update: U.S. Reps. Gerry Connolly and Frank Wolf issued a joint press release tonight thanking LaHood for meeting with them and the stakeholders for the rail to Dulles phase two project. The congressmen say in the press release that in the past few weeks there have been numerous concerns raised by Virginia's secretary of transportation, Fairfax County Board Chairwoman Bulova and Loudoun County Board Chairman York about the rising costs of phase two and the burden users of the Dulles Toll Road will face in tolls that will be used to pay for most of the project.
"We are encouraged that MWAA board members expressed a willingness to work with us and our local partners to address those concerns, noting that everything is on the table for discussion moving forward," the congressmen stated. "As we have stated repeatedly, our primary interest is for the Rail to Dulles project to be completed on time and at or under budget. Today’s meeting was a step in the right direction. While there are hurdles left to overcome, all parties agreed that Rail to Dulles must be done, and that we must and will work together to resolve the outstanding issues.
"Secretary LaHood is spearheading a process whereby we believe many of those issues can be resolved. We will be working to that end. Completion of Rail to Dulles is critical to the future of Dulles Airport, Northern Virginia, and the entire National Capital Region."