Rail-to-Dulles Controversy Goes Statewide

A house divided

The debate over Rail-to-Dulles has taken a fascinating new twist. For years the controversy over the heavy rail project and its concomitant financing through Dulles Toll Road revenues has been a purely Northern Virginia issue. It received zero coverage in the Rest of Virginia (RoVa). Ninety-nine percent of downstate residents were ignorant of it, and the other one percent was indifferent (with the exception of your humble correspondent and a handful of others).

Now Rail-to-Dulles financing has become the sole remaining object of dispute between Senate Republicans and Democrats in resolving the state budget impasse. The controversy has spilled over regional boundaries. Suddenly, what happens in NoVa matters to RoVa.

So far, the proposal to borrow an additional $300 million — to be applied to reducing Dulles Toll Road fares incurred to help finance Phase 2 of the Rail-to-Dulles construction — has divided the General Assembly according to partisan, not regional, lines. Senate Democrats from RoVa have hung tough on the issue, even though their constituents will help shoulder the added debt burden. That raises the issue of whether Rail-to-Dulles is really a cause or pretext. Is it just a tool for getting Senate Dems what they really want, which is parity in committee and subcommittee representation in line with their 20 seats in the 40-member body?

It will be interesting to see if regional tensions manifest themselves later today at the Commonwealth Transportation Board. The McDonnell administration will ask the board to allocate $100 million to help offset tolls for the Midtown-Downtown Tunnel project in Norfolk and Portsmouth. Sounds fair, considering that Governor Bob McDonnell has already promised $150 million in state funds for Rail-to-Dulles (possibly contingent upon resolution of a controversy over Project Labor Agreements in the bidding process). Is that enough to mollify CTB members from Northern Virginia? Will they express support for the additional $300 million in borrowed funds? Will rural representatives object to all the swag going to urban districts. Or will they simply rubber stamp administration requests?

Stay tuned.


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  1. I think Dulles is not the real issue. The real issue is that the Va GOP refused to share power at the committee levels where budget give and take is often conducted and so the Dems just laid in wait for the final vote which could not be tipped by a vote from the Lt. Gov.

    Now the Dems are rubbing McD/GOP face in it by using the Dulles Rail as a proxy.

    It’s petty politics at its best and probably dumb if it spurs the GOP to go out at next election and seek a majority that is immune from budget impasses due to partisan splits.

  2. CTB members can fairly complain about nothing. Most were on the Board when it approved the existing funding plan, which included no cap on the amount charged to DTR drivers and, hence, no cap on potential toll increases. Those in power then and now remind me of the person who was warned to stop drinking beer because he/she needed to drive home, but then continues to drink, and later, whines about a DUI arrest.
    There were many elected and appointed officials who adopted a motto of “Rail at any cost.” They heard, but ignored, a number of knowledgeable people from both political parties raise concern about the financial risks presented by the project, but chose to ignore them. I guess it would be too much to expect the former to “man up” or “woman up” and say they made the decision that requires very high tolls for a project that will not reduce traffic congestion as one of its benefits.
    I am not arguing Dulles Rail will provide no benefits. It will. But if officials had been honest, the public might have a different perspective as to the value of the job done by such officials.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    TMT and I agree. The CTB is just another appendage of the Clown Show in Richmond and, as such, represents a circus act itself.

    The fact that the CTB is meant to provide regional representation but still is aligned along the lines of Virginia’s 1935 population distribution is reason enough to discount anything and everything it does.

    I would spend some time mocking the CTB but the CTB is a self-mocking organization.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    LarryG gets part of the picture. The Dems have been threatening to make the budget an issue since the GOP used Bill Bolling’s vote to muscle them out of committee chairmanships.

    However, the Dems are now playing a bigger game. They have figured out that the transportation incompetence in the state can be largely laid at the feet of the Republicans. Furthermore, that incompetence is now manifesting itself in the form of absurdly high tolls in both NoVa and Tidewater. The Dems correctly surmise that pulling a small percentage of centrist Republicans in Tidewater and NoVa over to their side could be enough for them to take back the Senate and win the next goernor’s election. Transportation is the vehicle they will use in NoVa and Tidewater for that purpose.

    Their message is simple:

    1. Virginia’s gas tax is not indexed to inflation and has not been raised since 1986.
    2. Each dollar of gas tax revenue collected today buys about 45 cents worth of maintenance and construction vs 1986.
    3. In real terms, despite a constant transportation crisis, real revenues from the gas tax have fallen by more than half.
    4. 48 other states have shown the minimal competence to either raise their gas tax to keep pace with inflation or index the gas tax to inflation since 1986. Only Alaska has gone longer without keeping its gas tax in step with inflation but Alaska is a unique case with a vast wealth of oil exploration revenue st its disposal.
    5. The Democrats have repeatedly proposed the sensible approach of indexing the gas tax to inflation only to have that proposal voted down by the Republicans.
    6. The absurdly high tolls being levied in NoVa and Tidewater are the direct result of the cowardice and incompetence of the Republican Party of Virginia.
    7. Residents of all fast growing areas in Virginia should expect to see more ridiculously high tolls coming to a highway ear them unless the Republicans are defeated and the gas tax indexed to inflation.

    Pretty simple.

    Historically, I vote 65% Republican. No more. At least, not in Virginia elections. From now on it’s Democrats all the way for this former centrist Republican

    Bye, bye RPV – burn in hell.

  5. “Bye, bye RPV – burn in hell”

    Now if we can get Bacon on track.. we’ll be making some serious progress.


  6. ” That’s $42.5B per year” … yup but over 5K per capita.

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