Robert Clarke Brown, an outgoing board member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, unloaded with both barrels today in a letter addressed to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The recent fixation on MWAA’s governance issues, he charged, was a distraction from far more important issues — the minimal contributions to the Rail-to-Dulles project by the federal government and the commonwealth of Virginia.
“The criticisms of the Airport Authority have not been without merit. They have revealed real governance deficiencies. But the Authority is addressing those deficiencies,” wrote Brown, Treasurer of Case Western Reserve University who serves on the WMAA board as a presidential appointee. “I urge you now to turn your efforts on behalf of the Silver Line … [toward] securing federal and state funding resources to alleviate the terrible burden the current plan of finance places on the local community.”
Brown’s cannonade is in marked contrast to the reticence of other MWAA board members, who have largely refrained from responding publicly to their many critics, who include Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, many Northern Virginia politicians, citizen activists and the media.
The federal government will contribute only one-sixth of the roughly $6 billion cost of extending METRO rail to Washington Dulles International Airport, a far smaller share than most other federally funded transportation projects. The state contribution will amount to only $350 million, or 6%. The state share compares to a 21% share of the Interstate 495 expressway project, 28% for Midtown-Downtown tunnel project in Hampton Roads, and 26% for the I-95 HOT lanes project, according to data attached to Brown’s letter.
As a consequence, the burden of financing the rail line will fall upon Fairfax County, Loudoun County and commuters on the Dulles Toll Road, whose tolls will be jacked up to pay off Rail-to-Dulles bonds. “If nothing changes in the Silver Line’s plan of finance, northern Virginia will soon be paying double-digit tolls on Dulles Toll Road,” he wrote.
The federal inspector general revealed extensive questionable board practices, such as filing lavish expenses accounts for travel and the issuance of no-bid contracts. (See “The Most Dysfunctional Board in the Country?“) But Brown was withering in his criticism of LaHood’s intrusion into MWAA’s affairs. Although the federal government can be described as a stakeholder, Brown argued that the airports authority is a bi-state compact between Virginia and Washington, D.C., an arrangement that gives the feds no power of regulation or supervision. He was particularly critical of the appointment of a federal Inspector General to probe charges of irregularities in MWAA governance.
Not only have your repeated encroachments on MWAA’s independence been of questionable lawfulness, they have also gone far beyond the traditional role of U.S. DOT in local project development and execution. The level of hands‐on secretarial involvement in the Silver Line project during your Administration is highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented. You have injected yourself into decisions about project scope, project management, Authority personnel, and local legislation to a degree seldom – if ever – seen in the execution of U.S. transportation projects.
There is no legal basis, Brown insisted, for LaHood’s appointment of an “accountability officer” for MWAA, which he described as a “coercive federal oversight authority.” He added: “The precedential mischief that DOT’s heavy-handed oversight has created should not be lightly regarded. Already, Fairfax County is advocating a role for itself in MWAA appointments.”
Brown also chastised Congressman Wolf, who championed legislation that was passed by Congress and enacted by Virginia and Washington, D.C., to reform MWAA’s governance structure. Among other measures, the amendments to the compact expanded the board from its “currently cumbersome” 13 members to 17. That change is more likely to hinder effective decision-making than help it, Brown said. The change in board composition, he added, will barely even increase Virginia’s representation, bumping up the state’s proportion of appointees from 38.5% to 41.2%.
LaHood should draw upon the “fruitful” relationship he has established with Gov. Bob McDonnell to persuade him to come up with additional funding for the Silver Line, Brown said.