Dulles’ speculative bid to become a national air-cargo hub dominates the transportation, growth and economic-development agenda of Northern Virginia. Can it succeed? And if it does, will it crowd out other paths to prosperity?
In 2005 the Washington Airports Task Force (WATF) hired William G. Allen, a transportation planning consultant, to conduct an assessment of surface transportation demand in and around Washington Dulles International Airport. Dulles was in the midst of a $4.1 billion capital improvement program, including construction of new air cargo facilities. Everyone knew the traffic situation in Northern Virginia was bad but WATF wanted to know how bad.
That October, Allen submitted his findings in the “Dulles Airport Access Study.” Without prompt action to stem the rising tide of traffic, he warned, the major transportation arteries around Dulles would be gripped by gridlock by 2015. Northern Virginia was “trying to squeeze a quart-and-a-half of traffic into a pint-sized road system.” By 2030, the region would be paralyzed.
The problems were complex and not readily solved. Loudoun County’s land use plans called for an estimated 29,000 new households within a 15-minute drive of the airport by 2030, while jobs would soar by 99,000 to 201,000. At Tysons, at the other end of the Dulles Toll Road, Fairfax County expected to double the number of vehicle trips generated daily to 500,000. Then there was the impact of Dulles’ own ambitious growth plan to consider. The air cargo initiative would boost large-scale industrial development west of the airport. All together, a tidal wave of growth and development would add a mind-bending 1,100,000 trips per day — including 34,000 tractor-trailers — most of it in an east-to-west direction, through and around Dulles Airport, by 2030.
Compounding the challenge of accommodating the traffic surge, the 17-square-mile airport itself posed a major barrier to county-to-county movement. Traffic originating west of Dulles would have to snake around the airport — along Route 50 on the south and Route 7 on the north, both severely congested even back in 2005 — to reach job centers on the east, and then run the same gauntlet on the return trip.
Despite the devastating numbers, which showed Northern Virginia plunging into traffic sepsis, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and its allies have proceeded full bore ahead with their expansion plans. The McDonnell administration is pushing hard to win approval for a series of projects — the Rt. 606 segment of the so-called Dulles Loop, a set of highway improvements circumscribing the airport, and the North-South Corridor, providing access to Interstate highways — that could cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion or more to complete. (No definitive cost estimates have been made.) Yet those investments fall far short of what Dulles needs to become competitive in the air-cargo arena, according to one of the airport’s own studies commissioned in 2009.
The Dulles expansion amounts to one of the biggest economic-development gambits in modern Virginia history — if the multibillion-dollar Rail-to-Dulles METRO line is included as part of the package, nothing comes close. But a Bacon’s Rebellion analysis suggests that the bet may be a head’s-you-win, tails-I-lose proposition. If Dulles succeeds in transforming itself into a world-class air-cargo hub, the ensuing real estate development and traffic will overwhelm the road network in Loudoun and western Fairfax Counties, making the region unlivable for citizens and unattractive to other industries. If the initiative fails, Virginia will have diverted $1.5 billion from other pressing transportation needs to build highways that no one but the airport needs, and the highly leveraged airport authority could find itself financially maimed.
The truly remarkable thing is that, while bits and pieces of the plan have been presented to the public, only a handful of insiders are aware of the full scope of Dulles’ ambition and the risks it entails, not just for Dulles but the entire region. Loudoun County has part of the picture, Fairfax has part. The McDonnell administration is in a position to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but it is not clear if anyone within state government actually has. The general public around Dulles is only dimly aware that a massive industrial and truck-depot zone is part of their planned future. Other than a handful of conservationists and citizens who stand in the path of the planned highways, few are asking whether these massive road investments, or the Dulles air-cargo strategy they are designed to advance, even make sense. Read more.