A Mortgage on NoVa's Future

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?

Dulles air cargoby Reed Fawell III

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.

The Search for Solutions

Airport officials see the next stage of growth for Dulles airport as morphing from a facility that caters primarily to passengers to one that accommodates passengers and air cargo. Indeed, the ambition is to make Dulles one of the premier air-cargo hubs in the country. (See "Dulles' Grand Plan.") However, Dulles officials recognize that many hurdles stand in the way of their ambitious vision.

Surface transportation connections are a critical problem. In a 2010 report, "The Region's Future Hinges on Dulles," WATF President Leo Schefer contended that the airport faced two critical obstacles: transportation access and sufficient housing within commuting distance to support projected job growth. Transportation systems require a balance of residences and jobs in a neighborhood, about 1.6 jobs per household, to work well. The Dulles neighborhood (defined as within 15 miles of the airport) had 2.12 jobs per household, a 33% housing shortfall.

As MWAA CEO Jack Potter recently told the Dulles South Alliance, “One of the big impediments when it comes to development [at Dulles] is our ability to attract outbound cargo. Part of the problem is there is not an efficient road infrastructure ...  Yes, you can go around 95 and drive around the Beltway, but when you stop as a business owner looking at the hours you spend to do that, it's a lot of easier to take 81 north south go down to Atlanta or go up north to Kennedy, believe it or not, than it is to come in here because of the road infrastructure."

Freight companies trying to get to Dulles lose a half million hours per year in traffic at the a single intersection, the juncture of Interstate 66 and Route 28, Schefer said at the same meeting.

An MWAA report, "Connections between Washington Dulles International Airport and Corridors of Statewide Significance in 2035," filled in the details: "At present the I-95, Route 29 and I-66/I-81 corridors do not connect with Washington Dulles, nor are there effective surface links between Dulles international gateway and neighboring areas in West Virginia, Maryland, and southeastern Pennsylvania. This is a serious deficiency, as today the airport only faces east and is largely blind to the south, the west, and the north - areas of importance for the rest of the Commonwealth as well as the airport's evolution as an economic engine."

Dulles boosters confront other problems in their quest to build a large air cargo hub. Industrial, manufacturing and population centers in the Northeast and Midwest are closer to competitor airports in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. These competitors also have major seaports and heavy rail lines nearby, and they enjoy better road networks connecting to their major markets. They even enjoy shorter flight times to Europe.

Dulles airport has no nearby seaport, no heavy rail access and no industrial and manufacturing centers close by. Indeed it has poor truck access within the Washington region. Even when highways aren't clogged with rush hour traffic, random accidents can cause back-ups for many miles.

These drawbacks pose daunting obstacles to the building of a successful air cargo operation at Dulles. Logistical hubs require tremendous volume. They also require a in-coming and out-going truck traffic to match in-coming and out-going air cargo. Trucks, planes, airport and industrial facilities are partners in an intricate dance. If one trips, they throw off the others. The system cannot work if served by congested roads subject to lengthy and unpredictable disruptions. The global logistics giants that have mastered the dance, such as UPS and Federal Express, have expressed no interest in investing in a region served by unreliable transportation infrastructure subject to gridlock.

That's why in 2009 MWAA and its allies proposed a massive network of new and upgraded roads to make Northern Virginia a functional location for their planned air cargo hub. Bold and complex, the plan comprised several interlocking parts, referred to as the "missing links." 

  • The Dulles Loop encircling the airport would be the focal point of this new transportation network. Converting Route 50, Route 606 and Route 29 into a 6- to 8-lane beltway, the Loop would serve the airport's industrial zone, divert east-west traffic around the airport, and open the airport to trucks. The Loop would function as a hub with spokes extending in all directions. On some segments, traffic volumes would rival that of Washington D.C.'s I-495 beltway.
  • The Heritage Corridor would link Dulles to Norfolk by way of Fredericksburg. To the north, it would plug into the Dulles Loop near Leesburg and proceed into Maryland, where it would link to the I-270 Technology Corridor. The Heritage Corridor would connect Dulles to three Virginia interstates -- I-95, I-66 and I-81 (via I-66) -- plus Rt. 7 and two major Interstates in Maryland.
  • A U.S. 29 truck bypass would circumvent congestion on U.S. 29 around Gainesville by running south of Warrenton and feeding into the North-South Corridor that would tie in to the Dulles Loop and access a new bridge into Maryland's Cross County Connector connecting to I-95 near Baltimore.
  • A widened Route 7 and Route 50 would link the Dulles Loop with Interstate 81.

Most of these new highways would be tolled and have dedicated lanes for trucks and buses. The Heritage Corridor would have a right-of-way for a railroad connection that linked cargo rail service to Dulles airport's cargo hub. Tolls would assure funding for construction of the roads by public-private partnerships and ensure rapid truck transit. The U.S. 29 Truck bypass would carry a heavy volume of traffic, defrayed to some extent by tolls. Dulles Rail and Northern Virginia's two HOT lane projects were cited as possible models.

These new roads, if they worked, were intended to achieve the following results.

  • Open Dulles Airport to incoming and outgoing truck traffic from all directions, particularly north, south and west.
  • Open commuter and other auto traffic into and out of Dulles airport from the bedroom communities of Stafford and Prince William Counties in Virginia and Montgomery and Frederick Counties in Maryland.
  • Gain access to cargo and passenger demand from Maryland south of Baltimore that otherwise would logically use BWI south of Baltimore.
  • Make Dulles airport the most convenient and accessible gateway into the Metropolitan Washington.

That was the Dulles Airport Access plan. Had it worked, it may well have opened the cul-de-sac that enclosed Dulles Airport.

Plan Meets Reality

Unfortunately for MWAA and its supporters, Maryland catregorically rejected any new crossings over the Potomac River into or out of Virginia. Acting Transportation Secretary Darrell B. Mobley left no room for ambiguity in an October 2012 letter to Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton.

The Maryland Department of Transportation ... does not intend to revisit the years of debate regarding new crossings of the Potomac River. We are interested in the study of potential improvements to existing crossings.... We believe that our first priority should to maintain and enhance the existing infrastrucure to support our regional needs. Further, we believe that exploring the concept of additional crossings of the Potomac could create unrealistic expectations and defer the time and resources that should be dedicated toward addressing regional needs by improving our existing crossings.

There is no sign that Maryland's attitude has changed since then, nor is there any likelihood of it changing. Montgomery County, Md., the jurisdiction across the Potomac, has embraced a Smart Growth philosophy hostile to major new highway projects. Moreover, the political calculus for a Maryland governor, of whatever political stripe, offers much risk and little gain. Improving highway access to Virginia would make it easier for Maryland residents to seek work in Virginia and would drain passengers from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Dulles' most direct competitor.

Dulles' "missing links" plan also would cost billions of dollars to build, only a portion of which would be offset by tolls. Given competing demands for funds throughout Northern Virginia, any plan to spend a disproportionate share of regional funds to benefit Dulles and Loudoun County would encounter stiff resistance in metropolitan Washington's inner jurisdictions. Political realities prompt the question of whether the missing-links can ever be built. If it cannot, one must question whether Dulles' air-cargo dreams are viable.

Northern Virginia has reached an inflection point. Even with an influx of new revenues thanks to the transportation tax restructuring plan going into effect this year, the region has only a fraction of the funds needed to address the region's current traffic congestion, which ranks among the worst in the nation. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the livability and economic future of much of Northern Virginia is at stake. But incredibly, there has been minimal debate over Dulles' grand strategy. The air-cargo initiative, which requires massive public funding to support, has never been subjected to intense outside scrutiny.

Regarding the feasibility of the air-cargo vision: What does it take for Dulles to be a serious contender for an air-cargo hub? Will plans for the Dulles Loop and the North-South Corridor address the airport's ground transportation deficiencies or thwart its odds of success? Have major logistics companies expressed an interest in Dulles, or is the proposed multibillion-dollar highway building program a crap shoot?

Regarding the impact: If Dulles succeeds in its air-cargo vision, will the resulting traffic volumes cripple east-west movement, making the region unlivable and unattractive to business? Are warehouse and trucking jobs really the economic future that highly educated, tech-savvy and high-income Loudoun County residents want for the region?

And why, one might ask, given the inherent risks of the strategy, are Dulles officials so determined to see it through with so little public understanding and discussion? We'll have more to say about that in our next article.

Reed Fawell III was formerly president of a Washington, D.C., law firm and head of its commerical real department practice. He has developed commercial real estate in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.


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