Should Dulles Co-opt NoVa Economic Development?

air_cargoby James A. Bacon

Last week, Reed Fawell III noted in his article on this blog, “A Mortgage on Northern Virginia’s Future,” that few Northern Virginians or Washingtonians had paused to ask whether the massive road investments proposed to advance Washington Dulles International Airport as an air-cargo hub made sense. But clearly people are beginning to pose that question. In a Washington Post op-ed today, David Alpert, editor of the Greater Greater Washington blog, took on the Bi-County Parkway, which has been justified largely on the grounds that it would stimulate air cargo-related economic development at Dulles.

If people want to use Dulles, great. But if Dulles lacks demand, our region needs to invest its limited transportation and infrastructure funds where that demand exists.

Northern Virginia’s strength isn’t warehouses. Its strength, and that of the District and Maryland, is knowledge jobs in high tech, biotech and defense. Rather than a $1.5 billion parkway at the edge of the region where demand isn’t strong, let’s put transportation dollars toward growth that will attract knowledge workers and jobs that are the engine of Virginia’s success.

Permit me to elaborate. Dulles needs two things to become competitive as a major air-cargo hub. First, it needs truck-friendly transportation corridors capable of handling as many as 34,000 tractor-trailers daily. Second, it needs the kind of workers who would be happy to work in the largely blue-collar occupations tied to warehousing and distribution. Right now, Northern Virginia has neither.

Northern Virginia is one of the most affluent communities on the planet. Loudoun County, where Dulles is located, has the highest per capita income of any jurisdiction in the country! None of the surrounding counties have zoned for workforce housing. Dulles will not be able to find an industrial workforce locally. Employees will have to commute from many miles away, from places like Winchester, Culpeper and Fredericksburg.

Check the map accompanying Reed’s post. It shows the massive, multibillion-dollar transportation corridors that, in the estimation of the airport itself, Dulles needs to connect to major markets and import an industrial workforce. Without those highways, Dulles will find it very difficult to vault into the air-cargo big leagues.

The North South Corridor, of which the controversial Bi-County Parkway near Manassas Battlefield Park is a key part, would provide only a fraction of that connectivity. In other words, the $1.5 billion that Alpert cites for the cost of the North South Corridor and related improvements is only a fraction of the investment that Dulles really requires. The actual cost is likely in the multiple billions of dollars, some portion of which would be paid for by tolls. No one has tallied a price tag on the projects for the likely reason that the public would gag at the number. Instead, Dulles officials and their allies appear to be pursuing a strategy of pursuing piece-meal improvements that won’t cause sticker shock.

Meanwhile, the Dulles agenda has become the economic-development agenda of Loudoun County, Prince William County and the Commonwealth of Virginia. If Northern Virginians are going to be asked to help pay for the transportation infrastructure, they have the right to ask themselves what kind of future they want for their region. If they decide they want to morph from a high-tech hub into a middle-tech logistical hub, that’s their business. But I’m dubious that’s the vision most would choose. With luck, Reed’s article and Alpert’s op-ed will stimulate more debate.

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6 responses to “Should Dulles Co-opt NoVa Economic Development?”

  1. larryg Avatar

    I actually think the whole issue is a stalking horse for a second I-95 corridor.

    I-95 from Fredericksburg to Washington has been destroyed as a functional part of the rest of I-95 east coast corridor.

    A person trying to get from New York to Florida or Georgia to Main is screwed, blued and tattooed to use a crude oldie but appropriate modern day moniker.

    Nova has so thoroughly co-opted the Interstate highway system that it’s use as a reliable north/south east coast corridor has been for all practical purposes -rendered it literally a so seriously degraded corridor than people dread the transit through the region – and rightly so.

    The irony here is that north of Washington, the network of interstates has largely retained their functionality – in no small part because they are tolled which effectively protects them from being co-opted for local purposes.

    Once HOT lanes are deployed on I-95 between Washington and Fredericksburg, I predict, East Coast travellers will just add that segment to the list of ones they expect to pay tolls on – AND be able to get a reliable trip in return- a bargain compared to now.

  2. larryg Avatar

    well yes.. I learned this from Peter!

    you know DJ can complain all he wants about the “imperial clown show” but Richmond is never going to do to I-95 what NoVa did to it because they did build 295 around it.

    Of course then they dummied up with the Pocahontas Parkway (don’t you LOVE the way VDOT names their interstate-type roads “parkways” these days? you know.. like the average person is dufus…..

    I went from Fredericksburg to Coatesville, PA (western Philly suburb) a couple weeks ago.. up I95, across the Potomac then Balto-Wash parkway then through the tunnel then west to Conowingo over the Susquehanna.

    I returned home through Frederick then 270 south across the American Legion then to the HOT lanes on I-495 then south on I-95.

    the absolute worst traffic bar none was on I-495 before I bailed out to the HOT Lanes ( for 2.10 – cheap!, the Md tunnel was $4).

    NoVa is a CF. they totally overbuilt homes and underbuilt roads and they basically took over I-495 and I-95 as their regional roads.

    the east coast traveler get BUPKIS … as soon as the get without 25 miles of NoVa – the agony begins… it’s the quick and the dead…

    I used to think this was the way that all beltways “work” but in the last few years we have taken road trips across the nation – and with the exception of Houston and I-5 in some parts of Wash/Oregon… I-95 through NoVa is the worst. It’s even worse than Baltimore, Philly, New York, and Boston (close though)….

    I’m convinced the North East works well because of tolls. People do not use those roads (instead of local roads) unless they have a good economic reason.

  3. brodgers Avatar

    “Build it and they will come” rarely works in the infrastructure sector…

    Instead of taking a $1.5 billion gamble that Dulles can successfully attract air cargo users to fill the new road, why not make a smaller bet?

    It would seem to be more reasonable if the airport built a speculative air cargo warehouse on tarmac and tried and attract the air cargo users before building the road.

    In the best case, they would easily find a tenant who would pay rent or buy the speculative building. In both cases, the investment would be returned. They would also have real world data points on how many truck trips a typical user generates, as well as information on the relative ease of attracting a suitable workforce. Both of these can then be extrapolated to estimate the capacity for this sort of product in the market – and therefor what the road demand would look like.

    In the worst case, they would have a +/-$12.5 million investment in a building that sits vacant at the airport. That’s 1% of the potential road cost. They’d also have some real world information on why their particular location does or does not make for a good air cargo market.

    The other salient point to consider is that air cargo is not a use that generates a ton of truck traffic. Flying goods from one market to another is extremely expensive and usually only makes economic sense when goods are very lightweight, expensive and/or time sensitive. Things like pharmaceuticals and micro processors make good air cargo candidates. You can pack over $1 billion of pharma products into a single 53′ tractor trailer. You just don’t need the same truck volume as if you were moving sofas. Air cargo users just don’t use much road capacity.

    Anyway, there are lots of good reasons to build new road capacity. Accommodating and encouraging air cargo users isn’t one of them.

    1. But the demonstration project (the airfreight warehouse) doesn’t achieve the Road’s real purpose, to open more real estate near the Road to rezoning for development. Pardon my cynicism.

  4. […] of multiple new highways and highway expansions being sought by promoters of Dulles Airport. Bacon’s Rebellion has written extensively on the […]

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