Tag Archives: Rail to Dulles

Great Moments in the Annals of Virginia Transportation

by James A. Bacon

Two recent news nuggets provide a juxtaposition that calls into question the sanity of Virginia’s transportation policy.

Item #1: The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) will pay the lead contractor on the long-delayed Silver Line rail extension $207 million more as part of an agreement reached in July, reports The Washington Post. The Silver Line extension to Washington Dulles International Airport is four years behind schedule. Under the funding agreement, the cost of managerial incompetence will be borne… not by MWAA… not the lead contractor… not even the individuals riding the commuter rail system… but by users of the Dulles Toll Road on the theory that they will benefit from the reduction of traffic caused by the diversion of traffic to the rail line.

Which brings us to Item #2. Continue reading

Metro’s Latest Breakdown: Control Room Operations

by James A. Bacon

The Silver Line extension of the Washington Metro might not open on time. The latest problem, according to Greater Greater Washington, is that the commuter rail system may not be able to hire, train and retain enough rail controllers to operate the system safely.

The Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) oversees train movement on tracks. The center is critical to the safe operation of the rail system. In its most recent safety audit, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) issued 21 findings requiring corrective action.

Metrorail has failed to follow its fatigue management policies that allow controllers at least one day off per week. Moreover, the control center is a toxic workplace.

The control center’s environment includes distractions, fear, threats and conflicting instructions that prevent overworked and undertrained controllers from fully and properly carrying out their duties. These serious safety concerns create a variety of safety risks for everyone who depends on Metrorail. … Continue reading

More Quality-Control Issues Surface in Silver Line Project

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Metro inspector general has identified new quality concerns with the work taking place on the second phase of the Silver Line: A sealant applied to prevent water from seeping into hundreds of defective concrete panels may not be working, and the rock ballast in the track beds of the rail yard could cause drainage issues and shifting of the track, reports the Washington Post.

If not corrected, the issues “will create extraordinary cost, maintenance and operational issues early once WMATA [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] takes ownership and control of this project,” wrote Inspector General Geoffrey A. Cherrington.

Construction of the second phase of the Silver Line, an extension of the Washington transit rail system to beyond Washington Dulles International Airport, is already a year behind schedule. The latest deficiencies add to the list of quality issues raised about the $2.8 billion construction project. Last year officials discovered problems with hundreds of precast concrete panels installed at five of the six stations. The defect could lead to water seepage and premature deterioration. The general contractor applied a sealant to address the issue, but tests have shown that the coating was insufficient in at least 20% of the sampled panels. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Scandal, Scandal, Scandal… and Dental Care

The Old Dominion is looking a lot like the Ante-Bellum Dominion. So, how are Virginia’s political scandals playing out nationally? Not very well. Headline from the New York Post: “Virginia is for Losers.” Lead story in the Wall Street Journal: “Virginia Faces Leadership Crisis as Attorney General Apologizes for Using  Blackface.”

The PC police strike again. But there’s no let-up in the racial identity wars. A fraternity and a sorority at the University of Virginia have been criticized for holding parties in which people dressed up wearing Native American attire in one instance and sombreros and maracas in another, according to the University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily. The Inter-Fraternity Council issued a statement condemning the attire as “prejudiced and culturally insensitive.” “The IFC condemns these actions and any others that appropriate cultures.” Continue reading

Loudoun County Never Bargained on This

Loudoun County doesn’t even have service on the Metro Silver Line yet, but potential liabilities are escalating beyond levels county officials ever imagined when they signed up to participate.

Metro’s capital needs and operating deficits are growing as the transit system grapples with a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog, union featherbedding, and declining ridership.

The system’s operating shortfall of nearly $300 million by fiscal 2018 and could double by 2019, said Jim Corcoran, a Virginia representative to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board. “If things don’t change, it will be impossible. … We’re at $300 million this year … but next year it’s going to be $500-$600 million.”

WMATA hopes to close the gap through some combination of help from the federal government, the states of Virginia and Maryland, Washington, D.C., and local governments served by the commuter rail system. There is nothing close to a consensus on how to apportion the costs. Many, including Corcoran, said that changes to the regional compact between Virginia, Maryland and D.C., may be necessary to reach a financial agreement.

Writes the  Loudoun Times-Mirror:

According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s latest projections from October, Loudoun will start to pay Metro around $12 million in fiscal 2019 in annual operating and capital costs. The next year, the number is slated to jump to $50.8 million, then to $58.4 million in 2024 and as high as $82.1 million in 2025.

Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which is still under construction, is scheduled to go into service in Loudoun in 2020. How much more the county will have to pay as its share of keeping the rail system solvent is not known, but it is sure to measure in the millions of dollars yearly.

Even the Washington Post Has Noticed that Metro Is Failing

redlinecrashby James A. Bacon

How bad is the Washington Metro rail system? So bad that only 84% of its trains ran on time, mainly due to poor maintenance. So bad that ridership declined 5% since 2010, even as transit ridership nationally was up. So bad that the system needs an extra $1.3 billion every year to invest in capital projects, and no one knows where the money will come from. The Metro rail system is so bad that even the Washington Post has perked up and taken notice.

The Metro rail system is arguably the most essential piece of transportation infrastructure in the Washington region, and it is engaged in a slow-motion train wreck. If the metro fails, the metropolitan transportation system seizes up and fails.

The Washington Post has detailed the Metro’s failings in a lengthy, front-page article, which shows that shows how deep-rooted the problems are. The original design flaw, write Robert McCartney and Paul Duggan, was the dysfunctional governance system that shares board appointments between Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland and the federal government. Responsibility is so divided that no one is held accountable, and nothing important gets done unless the District’s mayor and the governors in Annapolis an Richmond reach a consensus and push an issue forward.

Add to that the political bias toward expanding the Metro over properly maintaining it.

Board members … kept pushing for Metro to grow. The politicians who held the purse strings seemed happy to invest in laying new tracks and opening new stations, where they could tout development at opening ceremonies. But they cared less about spending for maintenance to prevent breakdowns years later, when they might no longer be in office.

In 2006 then-interim general manager Dan Tangherlini urged cost-reduction measures such as replacing short escalators with stairs, selling Metro’s headquarters building, and buying rail cars made from older designs. The board wasn’t interested. After nine months as a fill-in, Tangherlini did not get the top spot, the article says, “because Virginia representatives on the Metro board were worried that his interest in revitalizing existing subway lines would threaten the agency’s commitment to building the Silver Line.”

So, Virginia got its Silver Line to Tysons, but the quality of service is held captive to a dysfunctional organization. Astonishingly, the Silver Line, the newest in the system, is showing the second worst on-time performance of the six lines. According to data cited by the Post, Silver Line on-time performance in 2015 ran under 75%, dropping below 60% in October 2015.

Another original design flaw was a decision to build lines with two tracks, not four as in New York, with the result that crews sometimes must shut down lines to perform routine maintenance. Also consider the dysfunctional unionized workforce which adds to costs. The Post authors glide past union issues with relatively little comment in this article, but the Washington Times produced a devastating series of articles on the topic several years ago.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Metro is so critical to the functioning of the Washington region, including much of Northern Virginia, that it effectively holds the economy hostage. It is the transportation analogue to “Too Big to Fail.”

But no solution is in the offing. Raising the price of Metro tickets, which don’t come close to covering the cost of the service, is not a viable revenue-raising option when riders are already hacked off and inclined to abandon the system. Asking more money from state and local governments is sure to be contentious, especially in Virginia, if bailing out the commuter-rail system means short-changing other regions of funding for their own projects. Taxpayers are not likely to approve dumping more than $500 million a year extra into Metro, especially with no guarantee that the money won’t disappear into a black hole.

The Airport that Rent Seeking Built


Passengers at Washington Dulles International. Photo credit: Washington Post.

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Post has taken notice of the fact that Washington Dulles International Airport, widely regarded as an economic engine of Northern Virginia, is in trouble. Sometime next year, notes Lori Aratani, more passengers will be traveling through Reagan National Airport in Arlington, than through Dulles, an airport with fourteen times the land mass.

Dulles suffers from the perception that it is a hassle to use. Indeed it is, compared to National, which is located in the metropolitan core. But, then, Dulles, located on the metropolitan fringe, has always been a hassle to use. When growing up in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, I once went on a joy ride (no alcoholic beverages consumed) to Dulles and I remember driving through miles and miles of empty countryside. Since then, the dairy farms along the Dulles Access Road have been transformed into one of the nation’s leading technology corridors. The center of gravity of development in Northern Virginia has migrated steadily closer to Dulles over the years, so it’s hard to imagine that getting to Dulles is more of a hassle today than it always has been.

No, something else is responsible for Dulles’ woes. Officials with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs both Dulles and National airports, blame Congress for tinkering with the decades-old rule that limit the number of takeoffs and landings at National. Restrictions at National effectively capped passenger traffic there, pushing traffic out to Dulles. Since 2000, Congress has weakened those restrictions. Between 2011 and 2013, Dulles lost nearly 200,000 seats to National. Sequestration also has clobbered the Washington economy, especially among government contractors along the Dulles Corridor who are most likely to choose to fly out of Dulles. United Airlines, which accounts for about 65% of the flights at Dulles, says it lost 10% of its traffic due to sequestration.

MWAA’s response, according to Aratani’s story, has been to staunch the flow of passengers to National. A new agreement with airlines would require airlines to compensate MWAA, she writes, if Congress opens the door to more long-distance flights out of National. In other words, MWAA’s strategy for Dulles is to restrict National’s competitive advantage in the marketplace and restrict the choices of Washington-area travelers.

Aratani neglects to mention the recent Bloomberg survey indicating that Dulles scores third highest among all major U.S. and Canadian airports for traveler frustration on metrics that include security, restrooms and shopping. Apparently, MWAA has acted on the latter concern by adding high-end shopping and dining options, including Montblanc and the District Chophouse, but there is no indication in Aratani’s story that the board even acknowledges the other problems.

Also, MWAA been a major driver behind the building of the Silver Line extension from Washington’s Metro system. The second phase , expected to be completed in 2018, will include an airport station. MWAA will pay for only a tiny sliver of the capital construction costs of the multibillion-dollar project, the financing of which represents a massive wealth transfer from commuters on the Dulles Toll Road and general taxpayers to the riders of the rail line. Rail passengers to Dulles will pay a fraction of the fare to travel the same distance as the toll road commuters who are actually paying for the rail.

MWAA and its allies in the air cargo business also have lobbied for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of road and highway improvements, including, most notoriously, the controversial Bi-County Parkway designed to facilitate air cargo traffic.

It strikes me that MWAA has focused its attention overwhelmingly on building Dulles through rent seeking — restricting flights from National, building the Rail-to-Dulles project at others’ expense, and dunning Virginia taxpayers to subsidize a highly speculative air cargo boom — rather than tending to the nuts and bolts of creating an airport that passengers want to use. Maybe the board needs to spend more time thinking about enhancing the visitor experience through such mundane things as tighter security, cleaner bathrooms and more dining options.

Update: I am reminded by Reed Fawell’s comment on this post of the catastrophic over-expansion of Dulles in the 2000s, leaving the airport saddled with enormous debt and high costs. In that high-stakes gamble, Dulles built “perhaps the world’s largest useless vestibule” as well as “a ridiculously expensive underground transport system,” both of which were compounded “by a long history of duplicate work, horrendous  cost overruns, and throttling of customer demand.” Reed has documented some of these disastrous decisions on this blog, but the full story has never been written.

A question that Ms. Aratani — or others — might ask is how those high embedded costs are reflected in ticket charges to passengers and terminal charges to airlines.

Storm Water Regs? What Storm Water Regs?


Silver Line construction

Officials at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) have revealed that they will have to redesign portions of Phase II of the Rail-to-Dulles project to accommodate new storm-water regulations. MWAA offered no estimate as to how much the changes would add to the estimated $5.6 billion total price tag for both phases of the project.

According to the Washington Post, MWAA has already dipped into a $551 million contingency fund for $700,000 to cover a change in storm-water treatment required by the state. That’s a trivial amount of money for a project this size. The question is, how pervasive are the problems and how much more could the remedies cost?

The distressing part of this is that it’s not as if the state popped these storm water regs on MWAA by surprise. There has been a literally decade-long build-up to the new requirements, which went into effect in July. Hopefully, the problem announced by MWAA reflects an anecdotal oversight, not a systemwide goof-up. But that anything of this nature happened at all does not exactly inspire confidence.


No Silver Lining for the Silver Line?


Blue dot indicates chokepoint where the Silver, Orange and Blue lines compete for restricted capacity on the Potomac River metrorail tunnel.

by James A. Bacon

By all accounts the Silver Line extension serving Tysons, Virginia’s largest commercial district, has enjoyed a successful start. Ridership is strong and in line with expectations. But a new issue arises. How much of the Silver Line’s traffic is cannibalized from the Orange and Blue lines?

The problem is that the three Metro lines must squeeze through the same Potomac River bridge to enter Washington, D.C. That bridge has a finite capacity of 26 trains per hour.  Trains assigned to the Silver Line are trains that cannot run on the orange and blue lines.

Is this a problem? Del. James M. LeMunyon, R-Oak Hill, worries that redistributing Metro riders between different lines will do little to alleviate regional traffic congestion. He broached the issue two days ago in a letter to Richard Saarles, CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

The primary problem created by the Silver Line is the fact that it operates by reducing peak period service on the Orange Line by 42 percent, from 19 to 11 trains per hour. Likewise, Blue Line peak service has been reduced from seven to five trains per hour. These ten former Orange and Blue Line trains now comprise the Silver Line during peak periods, for a net increase of zero Metrorail peak period trains on those lines. … The Silver Line does not represent increased train service, but only cannibalizes previous Metrorail service.

LeMunyon worries what will happen to the thousands of commuters who drive or take the bus from points west to Vienna, where they board the Orange Line. For many commuters, he maintains, switching to stations on the Silver Line will not be a viable option. It’s conceivable that Metro rail, after the expenditure of roughly $3 billion to build the Silver Line, actually could lose passengers. Former Orange Line commuters could switch to Interstate 66, making that freeway even more congested than it already is. “For these people,” he writes, “the Silver Line has no silver lining.”

In concluding the letter, LeMunyon said he hoped that WMATA would adjust the frequency of trains on each line to match customer demand, and if it made sense to move Silver Line trains back to the Orange Line that WMATA would do so.

Bacon’s bottom line: It is inconceivable to me that transportation planners did not take all of these factors into account when calculating the benefits of the Silver Line. If Orange or Blue Line trains are under-utilized at present, shifting some to a Silver Line running at full capacity actually could increase ridership. But, hey, you never know. It will be interesting to watch traffic counts at Silver, Orange and Blue line Metro stations and along Interstate 66 to see how commuters adapt.

I have to say, if it turns out that the expenditure of nearly $3 billion does not result in significant additional Metro ridership — one of the project’s big selling points — don’t be surprised to see lynch mobs forming.

Tim Kaine Versus the Mole People

mole peopleThe Silver Line extending the Washington Metro to Tysons is scheduled to open Saturday, and people are getting excited about the impending event. Mass transit supporters are hailing the momentous achievement, which provides the impetus to transform Virginia’s largest business district into a more balanced, livable and walkable community. Indeed, there is much to celebrate.

But others are lamenting the plundering of Dulles Toll Road commuters to pay for much of the project, especially the soon-to-start second phase to Washington Dulles International Airport and beyond. Critics have ample grounds for their bitterness. The Silver Line constitutes a massive wealth-redistribution scheme. Riders and property owners enjoying windfalls in property values will pay for only a fraction of the cost of building and operating the system.

Some day, someone will write a book about the Silver Line project and the extraordinary political maneuvering it took to make it happen. When he (or she) does, they’ll find a treasure trove of source material in the Library of Virginia. The state library is archiving 1.3 million emails generated by Governor Tim Kaine and members of his administration. The Kaine Email Project is making those emails searchable and accessible online.

Out of the Box, the Library of Virginia blog, is highlighting correspondence regarding selected topics, including the furor over whether to build the Silver Line under ground or above ground where it ran through Tysons. The controversy was covered heavily by the press but the Kaine Email Project gives a closer look at Kaine’s decision-making process. In a quick and superficial perusal, I didn’t find any great surprises here — Kaine was a pretty straightforward guy — but the emails do show whom he communicated with as he worked his way through the controversy.

This email dated Dec. 12, 2006, and addressed to Chief of Staff Bill Leighty, Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer, Communications Director Delacey Skinner and Counselor to the Governor Larry Roberts, provides some color.

Yesterday in our leadership meeting, we talked about the rumor that the [Federal Transit Administration] would send me a letter saying “the choice not to pursue the tunnel was yours alone and we had nothing to do with it.” Last night, Lin Holton gave me a letter circulating in Northern Virginia. The Tysons Tunnel group asked William Coleman — former Secretary of Transportation under Nixon and Ford — to write a letter that seems to suggest that the tunnel or no tunnel decision was not the FTA’s but the Governor’s. This may be the rumored letter — or it may give a hint of what a forthcoming FTA letter would say. I will give the letter to Delacey — she can provide copies to you.

At some point, we will be asked for some statement on the whole thing. Just to have a statement ready if and when we need it — for a press response or for a letter to the Mole People or someone else — I thought I would put into my own words a quick narrative of the process up to this point, trying to be diplomatic and not heedlessly hack anyone off (i.e., Congress people, Fairfax, FTA, etc.)

It’s fascinating to see Kaine grappling with rumors, responding to the circulation of letters by advocacy groups and referring to “Mole People.” Is that what he called the tunnel zealots? Pretty funny.


Over Budget, Seven Months Late… and Counting

Phase 1 of the Rail-to-Dulles project was supposed to be the good phase. For quite a while, it appeared to be running on budget and on time, providing reason to be optimistic that the highly controversial Phase 2 of the project might do so as well. But it hasn’t worked out that way. The story has been chronicled in the Northern Virginia press but has gotten little attention downstate, even though Virginia taxpayers are helping to foot the bill for the mega-project.

The track and stations all have been built but a critical piece of the infrastructure — the installation of radios that don’t meet code — as well as leaky roofs at rail stations and various technical problems have delayed the opening seven months so far. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority officials say they do not know when the rail line will open. Now, in the latest wrinkle, project manager Pat Nowakowski has announced his resignation, purportedly for reasons unrelated to the delays, according to the Washington Post, making resolution of the issues even more difficult.

When a project of this magnitude runs this late, and property owners in the Tysons area have invested millions of dollars in expectation of a Metro-led surge in demand, this cannot end well. Meanwhile, we have this piece of news: The office vacancy rate in Fairfax County crept another half percentage point higher in 2013 to 14.9%, the highest since the Savings & Loan crisis of 1991. So reports Inside Nova.  And, as I blogged yesterday, population growth in Northern Virginia has slowed markedly.


Lerner Aims to Complete Tysons Office Tower… Only Two Years Late


Artist’s rendering of Lerner’s new Tysons Tower. Original completion date: early 2014. New completion date: Late 2015/early 2016.

by James A. Bacon

Well, well, well, what do you know? The commercial building boom in Tysons triggered by the imminent completion of Phase One of the Rail-to-Dulles project doesn’t seem to be running on schedule. A Washington Post article today highlights Lerner Enterprise’s lengthy delay in building an 18-story, 476,000-square-foot office building near one of Tysons’ four Metro stations. Writes Jonathan O’Connell:

Office leasing has been flat, at best, in most parts of the region since then. The vacancy rate at office buildings in Northern Virginia is more than 17 percent, and other buildings built without tenants lined up are still largely empty. And the Silver Line has been delayed.

The good news is that Lerner is finally ready to move; it expects to complete construction by late 2015 or early 2016. But the question is how rapidly the Tysons commercial market can absorb (a) existing vacancies, (b) Tysons Tower, a Macerich project nearing completion, and (c) the Lerner office space, in a regional economy driven by federal spending in an era when federal spending, especially the defense spending so predominant in Northern Virginia, is severely curtailed and as businesses continue to shrink their office footprint per employee. Rob Whitfield, a former commercial real estate broker and a Rail-to-Dulles gadfly, estimates that Northern Virginia could have an eight-year office supply at present.

The multibillion-dollar long-term plan for transforming Tysons from a poster child for autocentric sprawl into a walkable, transit-oriented community has more interlocking pieces than a Chinese puzzle. The plan depends heavily upon an increase in development around Tysons to stimulate Silver Line ridership, pay for the reconfiguration of the business district’s paisley street pattern into a walkable grid, and generate tax revenues to offset the billions of dollars of road and highway improvements needed to move traffic in and out of the district.

If the development is slow to materialize, then the money to pay for the supporting transportation and streetscape upgrades will be slow to materialize. The question is, what happens if the anticipated smart-growth amenities aren’t built? Will Silver Line revenue fall short? If it does, who will pay? Will businesses find the district less attractive and locate in more walkable places, like Arlington, instead?

At least Tysons partisans can console themselves about one thing. Reston, a prime competing market on the Silver Line, turns out to have massive financial obligations of its own. The Reston Citizen Association estimates that Reston’s infrastructure needs to be $1.5 billion in current dollars ($2.5 billion in future dollars). Meeting those obligations could drive up Reston leases and rents.

The Silver Line is being built — that die has been cast, and there is no going back — so it only makes sense to use the Metro as a stimulus for more rational land use in Tysons and along the Dulles corridor. Tysons stakeholders are doing what the logic of the situation impels them to do. I’m just worried that the cost of the transformation — Silver Line subsidies, transportation access in and out of Tysons, and other infrastructure — is so huge that it can’t be paid for and the whole thing will disintegrate in slo-mo. I hope my fears are overblown. Somebody please tell me why I’m wrong.

LaRock Targets MWAA, Dulles Rail, Mass Transit


Dave LaRock

by James A. Bacon

Del. David A. LaRock, R-Hamilton, the man who beat legislative veteran Joe May in the Republican primary last year, comes to the General Assembly promising to represent conservative values and principles. Judging by the bills he has submitted so far, he will be true to his word. Aside from one bill providing tax credits for private schoolers and another fine-tuning the transfer of firearms, he has focused mainly on transportation issues affecting his Loudoun County constituents. In effect, he has positioned himself as a champion of Dulles Toll Road commuters and scourge of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the Rail-to-Dulles Metro project and mass transit generally.

His bills would:

  • Direct the General Assembly to petition Congress to impose tolls on the Dulles Access Highway, which provides direct access between the Capital Beltway and Washington Dulles International Airport, and apply the revenues to reducing the tolls on the Dulles Toll Road that runs parallel to it.
  • Forbid the state from contributing any more funds to the Rail-to-Dulles project until MWAA implements the toll on the access road and also agrees to apply 50% of any revenue from the sale of federal land for non-aviation purposes toward the offset of Dulles Toll Road tolls.
  • Limit allocation of transportation funds to mass transit by the Commonwealth Transportation Board to 25% of total allocations to the Northern Virginia construction district.
  • Eliminate the ability of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to spend discretionary revenues on mass transit projects not included in the regional transportation plan.

Many Loudoun commuters who rely upon the toll road are frosted that under the terms of the Phase 2 financing agreement for Dulles Rail roughly half the funds are coming out of their pockets. They will pay more in tolls than the people riding the Metro will pay in fares, while people driving to Dulles on the parallel access road will pay nothing at all. This is the issue that propelled LaRock to the General Assembly.

Bacon’s bottom line: Loudoun commuters are being sodomized, metaphorically speaking, by Phase 2 of Dulles Rail. They will pay billions of dollars over the next three-to-four decades not only to maintain and upgrade the toll road but to subsidize Metro rail service to the airport. If they are asked to pay, it is hard to concoct a rationale for not asking users of the parallel access road to pay, too. The bills aren’t likely to go anywhere — MWAA isn’t asking for more state funding for Dulles Rail, so it has no reason to go along — but LaRock does stand on the moral high ground.

His crusade to limit spending on Northern Virginia mass transit is harder to justify. Once upon a time, when the majority of transportation funding came from the gasoline tax, one could argue that motorists shouldn’t be asked to subsidize mass transit. But the McDonnell transportation tax deform of 2013 reduced the contribution of the gas tax and eliminated any pretense that transportation taxes are a “user fee.” A large majority of transportation revenues will come from the sales tax and other non-fuel taxes — in other words, from the general taxpayer. Allocating tax dollars to roads is just as capricious and political as allocating them to mass transit.

Placing arbitrary caps on the allocation of state dollars, as LaRock proposes, is not the solution. Given the political reality that returning to a user fee is not in the cards, what we should do instead is devise a rigorous methodology for calculating Return on Investment on all proposed transportation improvements, of whatever type, and fund the projects with the highest return. Public policy should be agnostic as to whether the money goes to roads, mass transit, traffic light synchronization, incident management, Transportation Demand Management or other strategies for coping with congestion. Let’s make sure we get the most bang for the buck.

The Metro Premium

How much is a location near a Metro station worth? In a fall 2013 study examining the economic impact of the Silver line on Tysons, researchers Cushman & Wakefield took a look at rents paid for commercial real estate and multifamily residences in Arlington County’s Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. The answer: Office tenants pay as much as a 30% premium for Metro access, while renters pay as much as 23% more.

Credit: Cushman & Wakefield

Commercial rents per square foot. Graphic credit: Cushman & Wakefield

Of the 101 office properties along the corridor, rents were highest for buildings located within one-twentieth of a mile from a Metro station. The price per square foot declined slightly for offices at a greater distance to one-fifth of a mile, then dropped sharply for offices at greater distances. The findings dramatically confirmed the old planning rule of thumb that people are willing to walk a quarter mile to avail themselves of mass transit but not much more.

Multifamily rents. Graphic credit: Cushman & Wakefield.

Multifamily rents. Graphic credit: Cushman & Wakefield.

A similar pattern prevailed for multifamily apartments, although the preferences aren’t quite as stark. States the report: “Properties within 0.05 miles of a Metro stop were able to command up to a 23% premium over average effective rents.”

Fairfax County is adopting a similar strategy to Arlington County for redeveloping property along its new, Silver Line metro stations: planning for walkable, mixed-use development and encouraging residents and workers to walk, not drive, to the Metro. Fairfax hopes to reap comparable gains as employers and renters pay a premium to enjoy the Metro access. Tysons enjoys a big advantage over Rosslyn-Ballston in re-development, states Cushman & Wakefield: While Rosslyn-Ballston commenced its great experiment as a dreary and declining retail strip, Tysons starts out as home to the largest concentration of office space in Northern Virginia.

On the other hand, the price differential for Metro versus non-Metro space in Arlington comes after 40 years of painstaking attention to creating walkable urban spaces. When it comes to creating a walkable urban grid, Fairfax planners expect Tysons to take decades to get to where Arlington is today. Until the urban fabric of Tysons resembles that of Arlington, proximity to the Metro is not likely to command the same price premium.

The good news here is that new Metro lines can create an extraordinary amount of economic value. The study provides concrete evidence that, if the surrounding land uses and the quality of urban design meet Arlington standards, heavy rail can bolster the tax base. The bad news is that commercial property owners appear to reaping the windfall gains, not the taxpayer chumps who pay for the rail line.

A digression into a Bacon obsession: Here at the Bacon’s Rebellion command bunker in lovely western Henrico County, we’re always asking how growth can pay its own way. I’m a big believer in “value capture” as a tool to finance construction of projects like Rail-to-Dulles, as an alternative to pillaging unrelated parties like Dulles Toll Road commuters and Virginia taxpayers.

While I love free markets and making profits, I have a huge problem with crony capitalism and rent seeking. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the big property owners in Tysons, though they are paying a sliver of the cost of building the Silver Line through a special tax assessment, are making out like bandits.

Tysons property owners get a double windfall from the Silver Line: (1) the rent premium from access to the Metro, and (2) permission to build at higher densities. The Silver Line will cost $5 billion to $7 billion to build (depending on what you include in the project cost). Fares paid by riders will not cover one dime of that amount. Could more of that value have been extracted from property owners?

Commercial properties make up about 83% of the Tysons district’s almost $11.5 billion in total assessed value, according to this county document. For purposes of argument, let’s say one-third of that commercial assessed value is located within a quarter-mile radius of one of the four Metro stops. That would represent about $3.2 billion worth of property.

A 30% increase in rents due to Metro access would increase property values by about $1 billion, to a total of $4.2 billion. Now, let’s say the Fairfax board allowed property owners to double density. That would add another $4.2 billion in value for a total net value creation for property owners of $5.2 billion. In January, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors set up a Tysons service district to pay for $3.1 billion for a new street grid, sidewalks and bike paths, expanded transit, and improved roads. Two funds are expected to collect a total of $557 million over the next 40 years (over and above what property owners will pay through normal property taxes) — or about 18% of the cost of the improvements.

By my rough calculations Tysons property owners will contribute only one ninth or tenth of their windfall gains in property value toward the public improvements that make those gains possible. (And I’m not even including the cost of building the Metro itself!) Now, I’m the first to admit that my numbers are the roughest of rough estimates, and all figures and assumptions need to be validated. But this is the kind of exercise, using validated numbers, that we need to engage in.

If it turns out that property owners are reaping billion-dollar windfalls while taxpayers get stuck with most of the bill, well, I have a problem with that. And so, I surmise, would a lot of taxpayers.

Tysons’ Parking Quandary

Tysons Metro station on Rt. 123 under construction

Tysons Metro station on Rt. 123 under construction

by James A. Bacon

As the first phase of the Rail-to-Dulles Metro line nears opening day, potential riders are asking a basic question: How will they get to the Metro stations? Tysons, the location of four of the five new rail-transit stations, has not geared up to provide new parking. But the higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian friendly development that the Metro is designed to serve has not yet been built.

As Lori Aratani observes in the Washington Post, parking garages and large surface parking lots don’t fit with the future envisioned for Tysons, and Fairfax County officials have not planned for new parking structures there. But the smart-growth, Arlington-like future that makes it possible for people to walk to the Metro may be years, or even decades, in coming.

Now people are worried how Tysons will handle the transition.

“The plan did not originally include parking because there were advocates that claimed that having parking garages would draw cars into Tysons,” Fairfax County Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville) said. “In my opinion, those cars are coming anyway, and they’re going to be driving around looking for a place to park.”

Fairfax County officials hope that commuters will take to buses instead. Writes Aratani: “Fifteen Fairfax Connector routes are being created, and 28 are being redesigned with Silver Line service in mind. Three new routes will make loops around the Tysons area, connecting neighborhoods, shopping areas and office buildings with the stations. People who transfer from Metro to those circulating buses can ride them for free.”

A possible stop-gap solution is “interim” parking. County officials have identified 25 potential parking resources within a quarter-mile of the Tysons Metro stations. But so far only one property owner has stepped forward with an offer. Cityline Partners will build a temporary, 700-space lot across from the McLean station.

Given the Washington region’s sluggish, sequestration-doped economy and its moderating population growth, it’s not at all clear when major Tysons property owners will be ready to invest billions of dollars in the big makeover. Vacancies must drop and rents must rise before there is any hope of generating the financing for the mega-development projects that will transform the business district into a walkable urban form.

Why should we be concerned? If Silver Line ridership falls short of expectations, fare box revenue will fall short, too. If revenues fall short, there could be a problem paying off the bonds issued to construct Phase 1. I’m not clear whose ox then would be gored, but, no matter, it would not be a pretty sight. For the record, Metro officials say they aren’t worried by the lack of dedicated parking. A spokesman told the WaPo: “The ridership models assumed the levels of parking that are being provided.”

At this point in time, there seems to be no concrete reason to get alarmed. But the situation bears watching.