Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-Manassas, signed off Friday on a state budget compromise that omits $300 million for the Rail-to-Dulles project, reports the Washington Post. Colgan said that his agreement in Senate-House budget conferee deliberations does not commit him to actually voting for the compromise budget when the Senate must ratify it. But his decision does appear to be the first break in the stand-off.
Colgan’s decision took place against a backdrop of furious negotiations between the McDonnell administration and Senate Democrats. According to another Washington Post article, Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton had agreed to provide as much as $200 million of the $300 million demanded by the Dems, then backed off. (The article made no mention of $100 million or more demanded to buy down tolls for the Midtown/Downtown tunnels in Norfolk and Portsmouth.)
“What is particularly galling is, the administration has been giving mixed signals,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. “Two weeks ago, they indicated that they had $200 million available. Two days ago, they said they had $175 million available. And yesterday, they had zero.”
Connaughton and his boss, Governor Bob McDonnell, had a difficult juggling act. Many Republicans balked at the idea of borrowing $300 million to help defray the interest expense on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) bonds that would be used to finance Phase 2 of the estimated $2.8 Metrorail project.
“I understand they want to secure that [$300 million], but to sell bonds to mitigate tolls, that really is kind of a stretch,” said Sen. John C. Watkins, R-Midlothian. “I’d be willing to put cash into it. But to sell bonds to mitigate tolls and have to run around and have to pay interest on them, fiscally, that’s not being responsible.”
The McDonnell administration had already agreed to funnel $150 million into the project. Still lurking is the issue of the Rail-to-Dulles Project Labor Agreement (PLA). Some Republicans wanted to make that $150 million contingent upon the MWAA board reversing a decision to give preferential treatment during the bidding process to companies that signed a PLA, in effect guaranteeing that all worker would be hired through labor union hiring halls. Critics say that provision could knock open-shop contractors out of the bidding, decrease competition and result in a higher price for the project.