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?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. Read more.

Source: "Connections between Washington Dulles International Airport and Corridors of Statewide Significance in 2035."
Source: “Connections between Washington Dulles International Airport and Corridors of Statewide Significance in 2035.”

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14 responses to “A Mortgage on NoVa’s Future”

  1. DJRippert Avatar


    That was a good analysis of the macro risks. However, I wonder what the proponents would say about the macro benefits. What other cities have effective air cargo operations? I’d guess that Atlanta and San Francisco would qualify. Maybe Los Angeles too. How have those cities managed the trad-offs between development and transportation infrastructure for air cargo? Finally, would it be smarter to spend $10B rebuilding the Norfolk Airport to get the air cargo business?

    As for Maryland – you are spot on. Annapolis has decided that all available investment dollars will be spent in and around Baltimore. The Maryland section of the Capitol Beltway remains a total and complete engineering disaster with no relief in sight. Meanwhile, you can’t drive 10 miles on a Baltimore area highway without going through a major road expansion project.

  2. Don, you may be right about the macro benefits. They might be huge. I think it’s worth looking at other cities. San Francisco would be a particularly apt comparison because it, like Washington, is a very high-income, tech-savvy town. If air cargo could work there, perhaps it could work in Washington, too.

    The problem Reed and I have is that no one is asking those questions. Dulles is driving economic and capital investment for much of Northern Virginia and nobody is subjecting Dulles’ plans to any real scrutiny. The political and business establishment is falling in line without thinking through the consequences. The lack of skepticism is not what you’d expect from one of the wealthiest and best educated populaces in the world.

    As you will see in future articles, there are very legitimate reasons to ask what’s going on and who’s driving the process.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      I agree with your interest in more facts. Now is the time to demand honest answers – rather than 20 years down the road (as is the case with the Charlottesville bypass).

      Looking at how other cities have fared in this effort would be very useful. This seems a bit like the port in Tidewater and the Panamax ships. There is a certain quantity of air cargo. Why will Dulles attract more air cargo that a huge cargo operation like JFK in New York?

      1. Earlier this year, I attended a meeting on this road and the proposal to increase airfreight shipments at Dulles. The speaker was Leo Scheffer, who was very knowledgeable and open to discussion. Scheffer lobbies for a number of companies purportedly interested in the airport, although most members seem to be real estate developers.

        He explained Dulles Airport is not competitive because of high costs and declining passenger volume. Scheffer also complained BWI gets state subsidies. Instead of addressing the cost structure (such as by cutting costs) and trying to increase passenger volume (such as by attracting discount airlines), Dulles is looking for outside revenues for subsidies. MWAA wants to establish an airfreight business, but cannot explain why it would be successful. Dulles wants to attract more on-airport businesses, such as flight training and airline maintenance. (This seems both reasonable and within the scope of MWAA’s charter.) MWAA also wants to get more authority to engage in non-airport-related real estate development. (This doesn’t seem reasonable, but would open a door to all sorts of problems, including cross subsidies.)

        Mr. Scheffer was open to all questions, but really couldn’t explain why taxpayers would benefit from funding this road beyond, “Gee we all benefit from economic growth.”

        Dulles needs to control its costs and attract more passengers. Since Reagan is more attractive to many travelers, Dulles needs to be a big hub for discount airlines.

  3. If this is such a good, deal, why don’t the air freight companies form a Public-Private partnership to build the road as a toll road? Because this is just another attempt to scam taxpayers to open some land to development.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    This issue has been in the Post recently and I blogged about it this morning:


    As far as air cargo shipments, the big airports are Memphis (Fedex) LAX, Atlanta, Kennedy, Chicago Miami and even Philadelphia is bigger on the list than Dulles which I still think is in the Top 20.

    Doutbful Dulles could be on the level of any of these.

    What caught my eye was that Dulles has really dropped passenger traffic while National and BWI have increased slightly. I haven’t used National in years but given a choice, I’d go to BWI rather than Dulles. It’s farther from Richmond, but there is better parking and more flights. Easier walking.


    1. DJRippert Avatar

      A couple of points:

      1. Comparing Dulles passenger traffic to Reagan and BWI isn’t really a fair comparison. You need to look at O’Hare, Hartsfield or other major airports with major international routes. My guess is that the international traffic outside of North America is down everywhere.

      2. United Airlines dominates Dulles in a way that is totally unhealthy. The lack of competition out of Dulles drives a lot of people to BWI to get cheaper fares.

      3. The parking at Dulles has gotten much better with the opening of the new parking garages.

      4. The endless walking at Dulles is just another symptom of Baconomics. Baconomics is the theory that all public expenditures should be dumbed down to the cheapest possible level without regard to impact on revenue. Once the above ground subway station is built at the airport people will start complaining about that too. But it was cheaper than the underground station – like the one at O’Hare. Ah well, saving pennies to lose dollars.

      1. Fairfax County proposed to support MWAA’s proposal for an underground station if MWAA paid the difference. MWAA refused, insisting the DTR users must pay. Sharon Bulova told MWAA to take a hike. If an underground station was so important, why didn’t MWAA propose to pay for it with a surcharge on Silver Line passengers exiting and entering the Airport station?

        And it would be great to see United with some competition at Dulles. Competition would lower average fares and boost airport revenue.

  5. There were two key statements to me in this article, although it was all very good. The first is: ” Dulles airport has no nearby seaport, no heavy rail access and no industrial and manufacturing centers close by.” These damn idiots (pardon my language) are determined to pound that square peg into a round hole. They want this airport to be something it is not logical to be and the only way they can do it is by covering this area with asphalt to get the trucks out.

    The second statement that really stuck out was at the end, “Are warehouse and trucking jobs really the economic future that highly educated, tech-savvy and high-income Loudoun County residents want for the region?” This is the question that comes to my mind every time these idiots keep talking about how this will bring “needed” jobs into Loudoun and PWC counties. Is this what we want?? *sigh*

    1. larryg Avatar

      re: rail access – National – check, BWI – check….

      seaport… Dulles, nope, National and BWI … but not sure what seaport has to do with airport… can you educate?

      Atlanta is not a seaport… and Chicago O’Hara… is it close to one?

      just asking….

      in terms of jobs… these days… even the tech savy places have to have the less than -tech-savy work…..

      I personally think every job gained is a plus – one less person who needs entitlements.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Don the Ripper
    Point Four is excellent. Also, on cheap fares. Haven’t been to see the new parking at Dulles.

  7. […] politicians in the state including most Democrats and a large share of the Republicans, tend to be fiscal conservatives that are focused on creating conditions to stimulate economic growth by keeping low taxes and […]

  8. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    According to Jim Bacon’s August 7 article “Low Truck Volume on Rt. 234, Really?” Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation on August 7 assured the Prince William County Board of Supervisors that air freight going to Dulles airport by truck is going to be “very low volume, but very high value.”

    And, according to insidenova.com, he also “assured the supervisors there are no plans to include high-occupancy or toll lanes on Va. 234. “We have no intent, in fact it’s nowhere in our plan,” he purportedly said.

    If this be true, how is it that the Virginia Department of Transportation has spent more than five years trying to figure out how to get a high volume truck route going north from I-95 and I-66 (incl. 1-81) directly to Dulles Airport? Indeed, getting a heavy volume of truck traffic quickly up the North South Corridor, including its Bi-County Parkway, is the primary reason that the Corridor was designated a project of Statewide Significance.

    Please go to the Final Report prepared for Commonwealth of Virginia office of Intermodal Planning and Investment (an agency of Va. Transportation Dept.). That document issued April 8, 2013 is found at:


    Please note the primary rationales behind the North-South Corridor as stated in this Reports Executive Summary, namely:

    1/ Goals & Objectives for North South Connector on table ES.1:

    Insure capacity and access to allow for projected growth at Dulles Airport; maximize number of modes (translated TRUCKS) used within a single right of way and also provide transportation options to all communities in Corridor (translated HOV/HOT tolled lanes for TRUCKS).

    2/ North-South Corridor Issues and Needs on Table ES.2:

    Support regional economic growth by investing in multi-modal access to Dulles Airport and surrounding area by providing multimodal capacity for people and freight movement (translated TRUCKS) connecting Corridor to Airport.

    3/ Develop and Test Transportation Strategies:

    Build more roadway capacity and implement HOV and toll HOT lane options connected to key economic centers (translated TRUCKS to Dulles airport).

    This report tells us what is in store for Virginia’s North-South Corridor. See Section 5 of Report for all of the details of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Plan. The North South Corridor is planned to be a truck route. The truck route will be managed by tolls. The tolls will open fast lanes for trucks giving them fast access to Dulles Airport. The tolls will be raised just high enough to maximize revenues by driving most users off the fast lanes to insure truck traffic and high occupancy use for those who can afford the tolls. Everybody else will be stuck in gridlock. This keeps toll revenues high. The model for this scheme of managing traffic and raising public revenue (think tax) is the Dulles Toll Road managed by the Airports Authority that also manages Dulles Airport. They raised the model to high art on the backs of Virginia citizens trying to get to work to earn a living.

    Hence the Virginia Department of Transportation’s mandate to help jump-start a premier air cargo depot/hub at Dulles that matches JFK, Philly, and Atlanta for dominance of the Eastern United States. And that is also plainly the objective of Dulles Airport according to the Airport’s authority’s own public statements and corporate minutes.

    It is the primary reason why this North-South Corridor (including the Bi-County Parkway) was designated a project of Statewide Significance.

    And it is also why Dulles Airport is working hard to attract world class logistics operations to Dulles, including moving USP’s Philly air cargo operations to Dulles Airport. UPS is the worlds largest logistics company. Philly is their second largest air cargo hub.

    Read Linda Loyd’s article found at philly.com. It details the scope and nature of UPS’s Philly air cargo operation. Imagine how that operation would use the Virginia’s North-South Corridor. Dulles Airport officials have acknowledged courting UPS to move their Philly operations to Dulles. The Virginian Department of Transportation’s truck route from I-95 and I-66 to Dulles is likely critical for any such plan. Hence the recent dramatics.

    Linda Loyd’s article is found at: http://articles.philly.com/2012-03-25/news/31236866_1_parcels-and-documents-ups-cargo-plane-ups-jet

    One can argue about the merits of these plans only if Virginia public officials talk straight as to what they’re plans really are. To date it is plainly apparent that Virginia official are not willing to talk straight to the citizens that they serve.

  9. During the course of the last twenty years, I’ve witnessed traffic issues first-hand. It has gone from bad, to very bad. However, I also sense that in order for the Commonwealth to better exploit global economic opportunities, we need a comprehensive inter-modal transportation system. I’m not sure what that magic bullet happens to be, if there is even any. If things are as dire as you detail in this great post, folks in Richmond better hyper-focus on these matters, soon.

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