How Seriously Should We Take the Dulles-Air Cargo Hype?


There’s an apocryphal story about a big corporation that assigned its scientists and nutritionists to concoct the healthiest dog food they could devise. After great effort, they unveiled the product. This dog food, they announced, would keep dogs fit and slender. It would give them thick, smooth hair. It would take away their bad breath. There was just one problem…. the dogs wouldn’t eat it.

I remember that story when I hear the claims, mainly from boosters of the Washington Dulles International Airport and economic developers in Loudoun and Prince William Counties, that building a $1 billion-or-more north-south corridor will stimulate the growth of the air cargo business at Dulles, creating thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in warehouse-and-distribution investment.

What if Virginia built this fantastic new intermodal highway connecting Dulles airport with points west and south for the purpose of stimulating air cargo business… and the air cargo companies turned up their noses?

Del. Bob Marshal, R-Manassas, took it upon himself to actually contact two representatives of major air cargo enterprises. He talked to a mid-level representative of FedEx at its New Jersey office. She had no knowledge of the North-South Corridor. If anyone at FedEx was open to establishing a major presence at Dulles, that knowledge had not trickled down to her.

More tellingly, Marshall also talked to Mark Alagna, vice president for corporate public affairs for UPS in the Washington, D.C., office. Said Marshall: “He told me that UPS does not support this road, that they are unaware of this road and they were not pleased that [Virginia Department of Transportation] representatives made that claim.”

If the McDonnell administration has expressions of concrete interest, Marshall said, “Please reveal your names.”

My sense is that all the talk of boosting air cargo at Dulles is purely aspirational — it’s something that Dulles officials and economic developers would like to see happen. Building the road would make it a lot easier to get a conversation going with major shippers — hey, come on down, and expand your operations here. But the McDonnell administration has provide the public no evidence that the shipping community is interested.

For all the talk comparing Dulles to the ports of Virginia in Hampton Roads as “engines” of Virginia’s economic growth, there are huge differences between the two. There is no question that the Panama Canal is expanding. There is no question that Hampton Roads has the deepest channels on the East Coast and will be the only port capable of handling fully-loaded post-Panamax ships for several years. There is no question that the shipping community is seriously interested in Hampton Roads. Whether that interest justifies an investment of more than $1 billion in public dollars to build the U.S. 460 Connector to create a second highway route out of Hampton Roads is another question. But the business potential is widely acknowledged to exist.

No such case has yet been made for air cargo at Dulles. That’s not to say that conditions won’t change and interest in Dulles won’t materialize. But given what we know now, there is no evidence whatsoever that the dogs will eat this dog food.


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4 responses to “How Seriously Should We Take the Dulles-Air Cargo Hype?”

  1. I often disagree with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, but try to keep an open mind and judge issues on their merits. The Coalition has posted on its webpage for the N-S Corridor (Outer Beltway) a statement that Dulles Air cargo to and from Dulles International Airport is today 0.1% of volume and 0.2% of value of all air freight shipping in NoVA.

    The VDOT N-S Corridor Study projects (p. 2-21) “Between 2010 and 2030, the demand for freight (goods) coming in and out of Dulles International Airport is projected to grow at an annual rate of four percent with international freight expected to grow at a faster rate than domestic.”

    Application of the MWAA-forecasted growth to the 0.1% base brings the total volume to approximately 0.15% in ten years and 0.22% in 20 years. The air freight argument is laughable. Viewing the air freight on economic value, the 0.2% grows to approximately 0.3% in ten years and 0.44% in 20 years. That’s probably why none of the airlines or air freight companies are in the vanguard of the advocacy for the N-S Corridor. Companies advocate in their economic interest. So where is the air freight industry? Their absence makes this argument look like an artificial one.

    IAD boosters note that, unlike most airports, Dulles has considerable room for expansion and has high operating costs. They argue that expanding air freight can make the airport more efficient and want taxpayer dollars to build the N-S Corridor road to expand air freight.

    In concept, a reasonable argument. But why should taxpayers fund this project when: 1) there are greater pressing needs for east-west route improvements; 2) the major members of the IAD booster group are real estate speculators and their consultants; and 3) any restrictions on the western airport road (such as limited interchanges or buffering park land) can easily be undone?

    A solution is to apply the Tysons’ funding formula (developers pay 59.5% of the additional transportation costs) to all big road projects. Any landowner whose property is rezoned because of the construction of the transportation projects would be forced to pay a significant portion of the associated costs. Forcing beneficiaries to pay would operate as an economic screen to filter out projects that are not truly needed to serve the public.

  2. larryg Avatar

    I think the air cargo thing is speculative with regard to economic development.

    Companies move much quicker than govt on infrastructure so most companies tend to look at what is available when they make decisions rather than try to get the state to do something for them in particular.

    So, for instance, does Dulles have the potential to become an air freight hub for the region?

    TMT alluded earlier to a competition with BWI – and perhaps that’s part of what this is about.

    so is a legitimate role for govt – to plan and provide infrastructure that will then attract companies that need that infrastructure to conduct their business?

    I’m not sure the Smart Growth folks can adequately reconcile their concerns with the road “sprawl” vs their expertise in determining
    if Dulles has potential for future air cargo.

    Certainly – the region itself is big enough and diverse enough economically to be a user of air cargo for perishable products like fresh fish and food, flowers, etc.

    so maybe it might be useful to look at air freight numbers for other regional areas like LA, NY, Miami, etc… and how air freight is now done in the region.

  3. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    How asinine this entire $1 billion-or-more north-south corridor proposal is. From its top to its bottom, from its front to its rear end, this $1 billion-or-more north-south corridor is asinine.

    Talk about the mangy tail waging the dog’s ass. Visualize it.

    First translate this Virginia style proposal from Virginia Speak. Imagine “building a $1 billion-or-more north-south corridor to stimulate the growth of the air cargo business at Dulles, creating thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in warehouse-and-distribution investment.” What’s this mean?

    Imagine spending $1 billion-or-more dollars to build a road through Virginia Civil war battlefields and Hunt Country so that hundreds of trucks can drive through that stunning and sacred countryside to deliver and then pick altogether more and new deliveries from a newly built and massive complex of warehouse and distribution centers built in that countryside.

    Imagine thus transforming that countryside of the Virginia Piedmont into a place where thousands of trucks will daily pass through then unload and then reload in a sea of warehouses so that those hundreds of newly fully reloaded trucks can then be unleashed everyday by the hundreds into most congested commercial corridors and residential neighborhoods in Virginia.

    This is Virginia’s vision for its future?

    At first glance its hard to believe that Virginia Politicians would do this to their fellow Virginians, the folks who share Virginia with those politicians.

    On reflection, however, its not hard to believe, indeed its akin to tradition.
    These people will sell Virginia’s heritage, what precious and what belongs to all Virginians, to anyone who comes to town, so long as the price is right.

    Watching Virginia’s movers and shakers do it, or try to do it, is not pretty. Unfortunately, examples from their past are not hard to find.

    So for example, look into what went on among Virginia’s movers and shakers when Disney came to their town not so long ago with buckets full of money. All Disney wanted was buy the right to build an “Historical” amusement park where the dead lay under the ground at Bull Run Battlefield. What a draw, Disney said, what a money maker.

    And so what happened? Here’s what happened. A lot of Virginian’s finest couldn’t line up fast enough with their hands out.

    Virginian’s with the hands out, trying to sell Virginia, and line their own pockets with the cash. That’s is what happened then. And its what’s happening now. Some Virginian’s still can line up fast enough with their hands out, selling what belongs to other people, their fellow Virginians.

    History is repeating itself. This time they’d get away with it. Unless like happened the last time, namely that some good folks stepped up again and stopped the land speculators and their money changers in their tracks.

  4. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    This north south connector will be an unmitigated disaster for many reasons. One is that it goes nowhere and connects nothing.

    Rather “this connector” will send huge volumes of spillover non local traffic off I-95 and onto a cross county road that dead ends at the Potomac River. This river blockage then will back up the traffic monster still along the route that its head has just traveled, jumbling up the monster into humps as it keeps coming until the beast is jammed up solid all the way back to I-95. (All this of course will be compounded by reloaded trucks wheeling out of Dulles airport’s new mega regional warehouse and distribution center.)

    This huge mess will then stagnate, until slowly draining out into the already congested local traffic labyrinth to the south in Northern Virginia.

    Caught in this traffic backing up in every directory, some vehicles will not escape until finally released from the grip of the traffic Armageddon days later when finally 65 miles north of the Potomac River in Maryland, headed for the closest town which by then will be Gettysburg Pennsylvania.

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