Dulles Rail Controversy Jumps the Track to RoVa

Once upon a time, the Rail-to-Dulles project was a matter of all-consuming interest only to those living in Northern Virginia (NoVa) and a handful of us in the Rest of Virginia harboring an obsession with transportation and land use issues. The attitude among most RoVa residents, assuming they knew anything about Rail-to-Dulles at all, is that it was a Northern Virginia thing, nobody else would understand… or care.

But now the heavy rail controversy, with all its cost overruns and desperate grabbing for financial support, has implications for another part of the state — Hampton Roads.

The root of the problem is the continually escalating cost of extending heavy rail from the Washington Metro system through Tysons Corner and all the way through Dulles airport. The cost of the project, billed at roughly $3.5 billion only a few years ago, has leaped to $6.8 billion. All the key players signed onto the project at a much lower cost. Now the question arises, who pays? How do they spread the pain?

Aha, one miraculous possibility presented itself. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which has taken over management of the project, has decided to apply for $1.7 billion in federal loans under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). That financing would bear significantly lower interest rates than conventional municipal bonds, potentially saving hundreds of millions of dollars over the 30-year life of the loan and making it possible to dampen the toll increases on the Dulles Toll Road, the cash cow expected to pay for nearly three-fifths of the project.

But there’s a hitch, explained MWAA Vice Chair Tom Davis at a recent MWAA meeting. The TIFIA loans are highly competitive. As the Fairfax Times quotes him as saying, Virginia has other large projects, such as the “Third Crossing” bridge-tunnel in Hampton Roads that it hopes to get the loans for. To win a TIFIA grant, NoVa needs to coax all of its funding partners, including the state of Virginia, on board, Davis said. Trouble is, he added, “The commonwealth, right now, is not on board.”

I wouldn’t want to be in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s shoes. I would guess that the prospect of Virginia winning TIFIA backing for two mega-projects is pretty remote. At some point, McDonnell is going to have to pick sides. No matter what he decides, he’ll make somebody really, really mad.

Meanwhile, the statewide political dynamics make the project dicey for Northern Virginia’s political leaders. The project has the potential to pit Virginia’s largest metropolitan region against its second largest metropolitan region in a battle of the bull elephants. If enough blood is spilled, that’s a battle nobody wins. Rest assured, I’ll be sitting on the sidelines chewing popcorn and keeping up a spirited commentary.

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