No Stopping Rail-to-Dulles Now

Graphic credit: Washington Post. (Click for larger image.)

by James A. Bacon

The final obstacle to construction of Phase 2 of the Rail-to-Dulles project fell yesterday when the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted to fund its estimated $270 million share of the project. Now all four funding partners — Loudoun, Fairfax County, the commonwealth of Virginia and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) — have affirmed their participation in a plan brokered last year to complete the METRO extension.

The last remaining question is how much the project will cost. Will the winning bid exceed the estimated $2.8 billion price tag, in which case overruns will be charged to the tab of Dulles Toll Road users in the form of higher tolls? Or will the low bid fall under the benchmark, thus providing relief for toll road users? An earlier decision by the MWAA board to scrap preferences for union Project Labor Agreements will encourage open-shop companies to submit bids, thus improving the odds of a favorable outcome.

The Rail-to-Dulles project is both a necessity for Northern Virginia and an abomination. On the positive side, the Silver Line will help integrate Tysons Corner and the Dulles Corridor with the region’s urban core. Rail service will trigger re-development of disconnected, low-density human settlement patterns into walkable, mixed use communities around 11 METRO stations. Coupled with services such as ZipCar, Uber and Avego and others yet undreamed of, the Silver Line will liberate thousands of Northern Virginians from their automobile-dependent lifestyles.

However, the political process of allocating costs for constructing the rail line was an orgy of rent-seeking and cost shifting. Like so many other transportation projects, rail and highway alike, there is no pretense that those who use and benefit from the $6 billion Rail-to-Dulles project will pay for it. The financing of Phase 2 is particularly egregious, diverting hundreds of millions of dollars from commuters on the Dulles Toll Road. DTR commuters could well wind up paying more per trip to support the Silver Line than Silver Line passengers will pay in fares.

Meanwhile, land owners fortunate enough (or canny enough) to have property located near METRO stations will make a double killing. First, their land will gain value thanks to proximity to the stations. Second, Fairfax County and Loudoun Counties will reward them with increased density. Fairfax landowners will pay a small share of the $6 billion tab through a special tax district. Remarkably, landowners on top of METRO stations will pay at the same rate as landowners a half mile away, even though they enjoy the lion’s share of the benefit. (Loudoun supervisors are considering a special tax district for Phase 2 but have not approved it.) Thus, the project can be seen as a massive redistribution scheme in which politically connected winners use their clout to extract wealth from the politically powerless.

Meanwhile, it’s not at all clear that the $6 billion investment will do anything to relieve regional congestion. While the rail line will take some commuters off Northern Virginia roads, high tolls could drive other commuters off the Dulles Toll Road onto secondary roads, making driving conditions on them all the more unbearable. Second, Fairfax County has approved so much added density to Tysons Corner — creating far more traffic at full build-out than the METRO can handle — that someone will have to find another $4-5 billion to upgrade road and highway access to the business district.

While individual winners and losers can be clearly identified, the dynamics are so complex that it is impossible to say whether Rail-to-Dulles will be a net gain or loss for Northern Virginia as a whole. Not only is the answer unknowable now, it may well be unknowable 2o years from now. The results will be too diffuse and too complex to disentangle. It would be nice to think that we’ve learned some lessons from the years-long controversy, but I’m not confident that we’ve learned anything at all. People will continue believing whatever the hell they want to believe.

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  1. Jim, the traffic situation all boils down to what a VDOT engineer told me a number of years ago at Spring Hill Elementary School in McLean, when I asked her why doesn’t Phase 1 make any reduction in traffic congestion. She replied there will be some improvement with some drivers taking rail, but the County (Fairfax) will more than undo that with all of increased development it will approve. The same will occur in Loudoun. Development equals more traffic.
    Supervisor Ken Reid was correct when he said Phase 2 will not improve traffic congestion. Full disclosure: Ken has been a personal friend of mine for quite a few years. As Vince Callahan used to say (probably still does), the Silver Line has nothing to do with transportation and everything to do with enabling well-positioned landowners to make a lot of money.

  2. TMT, You and I are in agreement about who benefits the most from Rail-to-Dulles.

    You may be right about the negative impact on traffic congestion, especially in Tysons Corner. However, Tysons is not the whole of Northern Virginia. One can argue that on a *regional basis* Dulles Rail will reduce traffic below what it would have otherwise been. Development that flows into Tysons as a result of Dulles Rail would have gone somewhere else in the absence of Dulles Rail. Wherever that development went, there would have been traffic associated with it. In all likelihood, billions of dollars of infrastructure would have been necessary to accommodate it. What happens in Tysons will be highly visible. Where that growth would have gone in the absence of Dulles Rail is unknowable and invisible.

    Of course, as I said in my post, the dynamics are so complex that people (including me) can make any point they want without fear of refutation.

  3. Jim,
    The Tysons traffic volumes assume the extremely aggressive traffic demand management (TDM) set forth in Table 5 of the revised Comp Plan. For example, by 2020, peak period vehicle trips in the 0 to 1/8 mile band must be reduced by 45% and by 2030 by 55%. Similar requirements for other time frames and other TOD distances are also set forth in Table 5.
    I submit the landowners will fight this and also that no other TOD area would even consider these requirements. Traffic will explode in Reston and Ashburn.

  4. larryg Avatar

    In my usual contrarian style – I would point out (I’m sure with DJR’s concurrence) how many of the world’s booming metropolises have subway systems – in addition to congested roads and dense development and those subway systems do something no road system can do – especially at rush hour – and that’s promise a relatively reliable trip time.

    How valuable is that for someone trying to get to Dulles airport who cannot afford a helicopter or for someone flying into an important meeting and cannot afford to be made late by traffic snarls?

    These systems are not about reducing congestion – they’re about being able to move around congestion especially at rush hour.

    How come that’s not the number one benefit that is promoted?

    the other thing – in the future – it will be far easier to expand metro including tunnels than major roads which will be essentially impossible.

    third – we have not come to grips with the interplay between METRO and the beltway once HOT Lanes are in place (supposedly at the end of this year).

    Will people pay through the nose to ride the Dulles Toll Road so they can get off that and then pay again through the nose to drive the beltway?

  5. […] Postscript 2:  Jim Bacon weighs in. […]

  6. Larry, I think Washington, D.C. would be hard pressed to handle peak traffic periods without Metro. Taking rail from Downtown D.C. to Reagan National is quite useful. I’ve done it many times.

    I’m not sure how helpful Dulles Rail to Dulles Airport will be. First, we don’t even know how many trains will run between Stadium-Armory and IAD. It makes a big difference whether we have five or ten trains or something in between. Every train transferred to the Silver Line takes away a train from the Orange Line, which is extremely crowded. MWAA has also indicated it will take a least an hour to travel from Downtown D.C. to the Airport by train. And with the possibility of so few trains, it might be a standing ride. Also, in the afternoon and evening, I-66 is HOV 2 (cab driver and passenger) and the Airport Access Road is never crowded. I don’t think business travelers will abandon cars in large numbers. Just my opinion.

    The cost of a new tunnel under the Potomac is estimated at $5 billion. Will Dulles Rail help? Of course. Will it make things substantially better? No. It’s all about enabling huge density around rail stations. Keep saying that to yourself. It answers many questions.

  7. larryg Avatar

    doing a quick check on Google Map, which says that trip takes 30 minutes in a car.

    without HOT lanes, that trip probably would take longer at rush hour but with HOT lanes, that trip would likely remain 30 minutes.

    if Rail to Dulles becomes a success and crowding occurs, that will be the next upgrade that will be pushed for UNLESS it really IS about density and development and not transportation.

    I strongly suspect that Loudoun will grow overall as workers will be able to take METRO to points east to work.

    It will be interesting to compare, for a Loudoun commuter what the cost of getting to a job in DC or environs via HOT lanes vs METRO.

  8. Larry, no elected officials even talk about another tunnel. That’s telling.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      They don’t talk about a tunnel because it’s the switching equipment that determines the number of trains that can go through the tunnel. In addition, some trains can be sent into and out of DC via the existing bridge already in use by Metro.

      The arguments about how many trains can get to and from Dulles are just more red herrings from the NIMBY crowd.

  9. DJRippert Avatar

    “On the positive side, the Silver Line will help integrate Tysons Corner and the Dulles Corridor with the region’s urban core. Rail service will trigger re-development of disconnected, low-density human settlement patterns into walkable, mixed use communities around 11 METRO stations.”.

    The City of Richmond (not the MSA but the city) has a land area of 62.1 sq mi and a population density of 3,211 people per sq mi. Fairfax County has a land area of 407 sq mi and a population density of 2,738 per sq mi.

    The Census Designated Place of Reston, VA has a density of 3,288 – higher than the so-called city of Richmond. The Census Designated Place of Tyson’s Corner, VA has a density of 4,000 per sq mi – vastly higher than the so-called city of Richmond. The Town of Herndon has a population density of 5,545 per sq mi – vastly higher than the so-called city of Richmond.

    I give up, Jim – where are these disconnected, low density human settlement patterns that your fertile imagination envisions? Perhaps in Henrico County, VA – population density of 1,291 per sq mi?

    1. Don, First point, it’s a silly exercise to compare average density in the Washington metro region, with a population of 5 million, to the average density in the Richmond metro region, a population of 1 million. The economic justifiction for density increases in direct proportion to a region’s population. One would expect greater density in the core of the Washington metro region (and Fairfax is now core) than in the core of the Richmond region, just as one would expect greater density in Richmond than, say, in Roanoke.

      Second point, Density in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield need to increase. Do I repeatedly lament sprawl in the Richmond region? Yes, I do. Do I advocate compact, higher-density mixed use projects for the Richmond region? Yes, I do.

      I give up, Don, what’s your point?

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        You refer to disconnected, low density settlement patterns all the time. However, you never seem to have the definition of a connected, high density settlement pattern. It’s like you just use these terms for the sake of complaint.

        How many people per sq mi would you like to see in order to stop complaining about disconnected, low density settlement patters?

        You see, Jim – I grew up in an Census Designated Place with a population density over 10,000 per sq mi.,_Virginia

        Nobody walked anywhere.
        Everybody had a car.

        And … if Richmond and/or Roanoke will never have sufficient density to be comparable with Northern Virginia’s “disconnected, low density human settlement patterns” then why don’t we pursue policies to de-populate those places? For example, we could move the state government to a city that might achieve whatever you definition of connected, high density human settlement patterns might be.

        Are you declaring Richmond an inherently lost cause?

        Meanwhile, your claims about MSA size and population density just don’t add up. Omaha is a much smaller MSA than Richmond yet the city of Omaha has a higher population density. The Indianapolis MSA is larger than Richmond but the city of Indianapolis is less densely populated.

        My point is that you (and the rest of the Richmond political class) ought to check your facts before making random claims.

  10. larryg Avatar

    re: tunnels. Is there not a map that shows an upstream Potomac crossing for METRO (maybe not a tunnel – but a new connection?)

  11. Hydra Avatar

    This should put Fauquier another 50 years behind Loudoun.

    Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.

  12. Hydra Avatar

    the Silver Line will liberate thousands of Northern Virginians from their automobile-dependent lifestyles.

    You make it sound like people are slaves to the automobiles they love (and are even apparently are willing to die for: recent storm fatality story).

    “Liberating” these folks from their autos will also eliminate thousands of potential destinations, thus “limiting their choices”, the opposite of which is the goal of most transportation ploicy.

    1. The Silver Line will liberate people by giving them more transportation choices. That is a good thing. Unfortunately, it liberates some people at the expense of burdening others with the cost of a transportation mode they may never use. That is a bad thing. Rail-to-Dulles is a very mixed bag.

  13. Hydra Avatar

    without HOT lanes, that trip probably would take longer at rush hour but with HOT lanes, that trip would likely remain 30 minutes.

    Nope. Time is money and money is time. If they have to pay for the hot lane, then the cost of the trip (in time) would have to include the time it takes to earn the money to pay the HOT lane toll, You would apply the same procedure to get the cost of the Metro ride, in time.

    Total Time(cost) = time to earn the fare + time to complete the trip.

    Looked at this way, it is obvious that the less money you earn, the more expensive the trip is. This is why trains and HOT lanes benefit primarily the wealthy.

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