Dulles Rail — A Tale of Two Tunnels

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the “mega-projects” in northern Virginia, but left out the Dulles Rail project.  It’s because its status is constantly in the news and the news is often not good.

One of the ironies of the Dulles Rail project is that it never seems to get the “tunnel” issue correct.

In 2007, the County, state and Federal authorities (each entity blamed the other) collectively decided to not pursue a tunnel under Tysons Corner — thus creating a unique access into the most pedestrian-challenged business district in the U.S.

Flash forward to 2011.  A month ago, the Airports Authority, which now operates the project, decided to spend an extra $330 million to build a tunnel to link the rail line up to the actual terminal, as opposed to having it terminate a few hundred yards away.

Local authorities and the U.S. Congressman, Frank Wolf, have objected strongly.  It’s fair to say that the objection has nothing to do with the merits of walking 1,000 feet.  It’s all about the cost of the project, which is now spiraling over the budget, estimated at $3.5B a few years ago.

And, now that the Feds have contributed their $900M share, who is responsible for those cost overruns?

The local governments, property owners and commuters along the Dulles Toll Road — all who are on the hook.  “Conservative” estimates have Toll Road charges going up to $8-10 per trip for commuters driving to Loudoun County.   (Note that the Toll Road is owned by the Airports Authority and not by the Commonwealth). 

The sole control over this situation appears to be the local governments like Loudoun who are threatening to refrain from contributing their agreed share, if there is no “hard cap” on project costs and their own liability.  While that withdrawal risks the whole project, it’s also the only leverage that Virginia taxpayers have at this point.

At this point, the risk of the increased costs are all on Virginia property owners and commuters.  But the benefits are going to the Airport and its users.  (That’s the problem with using MWAA to run this project).

Congressman Wolf has introduced a bill to put more Virginia members on the Airports Authority so as to make sure that the “representation” and “taxation” issues are evened out.   When we’re back in session, the Assembly needs to look at similar legislation, if only to protect taxpayers from a blank check for Dulles Rail. 

Otherwise, there are going to be some very unhappy drivers and property owners along the Route 267 corridor, unless this project finds a new source of funds or a way to ramp down the costs.

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  • http://www.baconsrebellion.com Groveton

    $8 – $10 per trip going to Loudoun County?

    Just a while ago the Virginia General Assembly decided that expanding the Beltway to accommodate increasing traffic was simply beyond the capability of the state government and/or VDOT. So, they sold the rights to build HOT Lanes to Flour / Transurban instead. The cost of driving on these lanes will range from $.10 per mile to $1.00 per mile. An average trip is forecast to cost $5 – $6. There is no cap on tolls so this could certainly go higher.

    The General Assembly’s Approach

    Senator, it’s time to put the cards on the table. Northern Virginia’s elected members of the General Assembly have been unable or unwilling to solve Northern Virginia’s transportation needs. Under the Kaine Administration, the transportation funding bill was found to be unconstitutional (by unanimous vote). McDonnell has certainly done better – managing to get transportation funding approved. However, the last time I looked, even the McDonnell bill provides less funding (on a per capita basis) to Northern Virginia than to the rest of the state. Meanwhile, Northern Virginia pays vastly more in state taxes than it receives in state benefits.

    Here’s the plot -

    If you live in Northern Virginia, you pay by the mile for workable roads. If you live elsewhere in Virginia, your roads are free.

    And please don’t blame the MWAA. At least they are trying. Which is considerably more than I can say about the General Assembly.

    I would be very happy to hear a quantitative defense of Virginia’s funding of transportation in Northern Virginia from any member of either party of either chamber of the General Assembly from Northern Virginia.

    Something tells me that defense won’t be coming.

    It’s easier to bash the MWAA.

  • Chap


    Responding strictly on the issue of the bond bill …

    It’s somewhat ironic that SB 1446 is now characterized as having “less per capita” for NOVA than other areas. At the time the bill was passed, the exact opposite argument was used — which is why nearly all the “no” votes came from western VA or the Richmond area (only 3 NOVA lawmakers out of about 40 voted “no”). Although my briefing book is back in Richmond, the list of projects presented showed that NOVA was due for over one-third of the projects, including most big ticket items like I-95 and I-66 upgrades.

    Having said that, the project list is not part of the law. The CTB and VDOT will eventually choose what projects go forward. However, the brutal fact is that most new projects are up here — and that’s why most our lawmakers voted “yes.”

  • Rob Whitfield


    Thanks for posting an item on Dulles Rail. Clarification and amplification of your remarks follows.
    The Dulles Toll Road was conveyed from VDOT to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in November 2008 pursuant to a March 2006 agreement between Governor Kaine and MWAA giving the latter rights to operate, maintain and control the DTR for fifty years in return for MWAA agreeing to build Dulles Rail. Toll Rates since 2008 have been set by MWAA which to date has only established rates through the end of 2012.
    Dulles Rail is being built in two phases. The first 11.5 mile phase from Falls Church through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue in Reston is under construction and scheduled to open in late 2013. Phase 1 rail project capital costs are estimated at $2.7 billion plus $465 million in construction period financing. The Federal Transit Administration is providing a $900 million grant. Fairfax County in 2004 established a $400 million Dulles Rail Phase 1 tax district and has collected funds at a rate of $0.22 per $100 assessed value of commercial and industrial property owners in Tysons Corner and Reston since then. The tax district boundaries were created to exclude several well connected developers but include some property owners whose land is 1.5 miles from the nearest station.
    The Commonwealth has committed only $275 million for Dulles Rail, mainly for road improvements in Tysons Corner. The over $1.3 billion balance of Phase 1 capital funds are being provided by Dulles Toll Road tolls under a plan never submitted to the General Assembly or Fairfax County voters for approval either by legislators or through a local referendum.
    Upon completion Dulles Rail -known as the Silver Line by the Metropolitan Washington Area Transit Authority- will be turned over for operations to WMATA. WMATA operating and maintenance costs for Silver Line to Fairfax County taxpayers are likely to exceed $100 million annually but no hard facts have been given to taxpayers. Similarly WMATA Chairman and Fairfax County Supervisor Cathy Hudgins and her Board colleagues have just completed six public hearings on the WMATA 2012 Budget with hearings in Montgomery, Prince Georges, Arlington Counties, two in DC and one in Alexandria but no hearing in Fairfax County.
    WMATA has not offered information on proposed fares and parking charges for Silver Line riders.
    The Federal Transit Administration declined to fund Dulles Rail Phase 2 in December 2002 due to a lack of projected rail ridership in the areas west of Reston. Economic and financial feasibility of Phase 2 has never been demonstrated and population and employment densities in the Phase 2 area remain far below figures needed to support a heavy rail investment. Recently, a majority of Fairfax County Supervisors, including two who are WMATA Board Members and alternates, declined to support a Board motion to study the economic and fiscal impact of funding Dulles Rail Phase 2 on the backs of Dulles Toll Road users. MWAA has proposed, but never allowed a public hearing, to require 75% of capital costs estimated now at $3.5 billion to be paid by Dulles Toll Road tolls. MWAA limited its share of capital costs to just 4.1% while Loudoun County is responsible for 4.8% and Fairfax County 16.1% under a 2007 Agreement not subject of public hearings in the impacted areas. MWAA argues that it has contributed most of the right of way for Dulles Rail.
    Due to a decline in economic activity for both commercial and residential development in western Fairfax County and Loudoun County since 2007, market demand conditions for rail are less favorable than in 2002. Rail ridership forecasts were made as part of the Environmental Impact Statement in 2002 but never updated since then. The EIS ridership data was based on a land use plan for Loudoun County that included a population cap of 1 million residents there. In 2004, Loudoun County Supervisors adopted a plan that limits County population to 500,000 persons (and a few thousand horses!).
    In short, Dulles Rail Phase 2 is far less feasible today when costs are projected at $3.5 billion than when the FTA declined to fund Phase 2 in 2002 when costs were only $1.8 billion. An April 2011 fiscal impact study prepared for Loudoun County showed that only $234 million in economic benefits would result over the next 29 years as a result of Phase 2 rail. Initial capital costs for Loudoun County are estimated at $300 million based on the estimated $3.5 billion costs. Operating and maintenance costs for WMATA operations are estimated to cost Loudoun County taxpayers $25 to $40 million annually
    MWAA in May 2011 updated its toll forecasts based on the increased costs of Phase 2. MWAA forecasts one way DTR tolls of $10.75 will be needed by 2020 and $19.75 by 2040 to pay for Dulles Rail financing, even higher tolls beyond 2040, unless a TIFIA loan of $1.7 billion is approved by USDOT. Prospects for approval are very doubtful. USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood has offered to meet with MWAA Board and staff and the other parties involved –Fairfax County, Loudoun County and the Commonwealth – in late May or early June 2011 in an attempt to reach a funding resolution.
    To put the toll issue in perspective, typical DTR tolls are $2 each way in 2011. For a typical commuter, that amounts to an annual toll of $1,000. MWAA expects to collect $100 million in tolls in 2011. By 2020, DTR tolls are projected at $5,000 annually and by 2040 $10,000 annually. TOTAL TOLLS PROJECTED OVER THE NEXT 50+ YEARS UNDER THE LATEST MWAA PLAN OF FINANCE FOR DULLES RAIL ARE IN THE RANGE OF $15 TO $20 BILLION. BY 2053, MWAA PROJECTS TOLL COLLECTIONS OF $1.1 BILLION.
    Approval from the General Assembly for the MWAA transfer and Dulles Rail funding plan was never sought by Governor Kaine who instead invoked “executive powers.” Further proper legal authority was never obtained by MWAA from Congress and the District of Columbia to expand the permitted functions of MWAA beyond operating and developing Reagan National and Dulles International Airports.
    It is time for Virginia legislators to demand an end to the MWAA dictatorship. Most MWAA Board Members don’t even live in Virginia. We are being taxed to death by a group whose majority members are from DC, Maryland and federal appointees from Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
    A lawsuit was filed in April 2011 against MWAA, the central theme of which is: “NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION!” Dulles Toll Road users are paying most of the costs of the Dulles Rail project from AFTER TAX FUNDS FOR WHICH NO TAX DEDUCTION EXISTS! Yet DTR users have no representation at MWAA or on the Dulles Corridor Advisory Committee. Look for more details about the suit in newspapers and TV next week. An initial court hearing is set for May 26 in Alexandria.
    Under the financing plan, DTR users are massively subsidizing Metrorail riders. Many (most?) riders who will benefit from Dulles Rail are from Arlington County, Alexandria, DC and Maryland. In contrast to the 75+% federal funding used for the first 103 miles of Metrorail, the federal share of DR is under 14%. Over 40% of Metrorail riders during peak periods are federal workers. Those workers obtain monthly tax rebates/credits of $230 per month.

  • http://www.baconsrebellion.com Groveton


    Nothing would make me happier than knowing that the residents of Northern Virginia are getting a “fair shake” from the lawmakers in Richmond. Well, OK, a Redskins Super Bowl win would make me happier but I’d still be very happy to see some evidence of fiscal fairness in the Old Dominion.

    As you know, the conventional wisdom among the residents of Northern Virginia is that you can almost hear the whooshing sound as money flies out of NoVa into the government in Richmond never to be seen in NoVa again. If this conventional wisdom is wrong I should think it would be in the clear interest of Northern Virginia’s incumbent General Assembly members to prove it wrong. In the run up to this fall’s elections I’d expect the incumbent candidates to spend a lot of time clearly and quantitatively describing how they ensured fair fiscal treatment for Northern Virginia over their last term of office.

    Yet this never happens.

    I can’t claim to see every speech or attend every rally. However, I see and attend more than most people. I have never once heard an incumbent statehouse politician from Northern Virginia claim that he or she had helped ensure fair treatment for the residents of Northern Virginia. Perhaps, this fall, you will be the first. I hope so.

  • http://www.baconsrebellion.com Groveton

    Mr. Whitfield:

    You comments regarding the Dulles Toll Road and Rail To Dulles are both clear and informative. Your comments represent the first time I have seen the historical events leading up to today’s situation put into perspective.

    However, I wonder about your plea to our elected representatives in Richmond for help. As I mentioned previously, these same representatives sold the rights to expanded Beltway lanes to Flour and Transurban. These companies have published an estimated price of $1 / mile to ride on roads built on public land. There is no cap on the price that these private companies can charge for these tolls. And, needless to say, the taxpayers of Fairfax County have no vote over the executives at Flour or Transurban. Some of the MWAA board members are appointed by elected officials in Virginia. None of Flour or Transurban’s executives are appointed or elected by anybody in Virginia.

    I believe that your questions regarding the fiscal merit of Rail To Dulles should be answered. However, I believe your forlorn hope for help from the General Assembly is a waste of time. They may work to kill the Rail To Dulles project since bashing MWAA could score some political points. However, they will not turn around and address the real transportation problems facing Northern Virginia in a rational way. Instead of MWAA you will get either endless gridlock on another “sell out” to a private company who will have you wishing for the the days when MWAA was in charge.

    In the end, the process won’t matter. Whether initiated by elected officials or appointed boards – residents of Northern Virginia will pay a steep price to drive on our own roads while residents elsewhere in the state will not.

  • LarryG

    WOW! My friend Groveton makes it sound like that NoVa’s elected representatives to Richmond and Congress sold out the region!

    say it ain’t so Groveton!

  • Chap

    There’s a lot here and it’s very true. Yes, both MWAA and WMATA are entities in which non-Virginia representatives outnumber the Virginia reps. It’s also true that the toll road users will be subsidizing the rail. As I stated above, the Toll Road is not owned by VDOT — it’s owned by MWAA. So they have untrammeled discretion.

    There is going to be a taxpayer revolt IMO when people connect the dots and see that the rail project is basically being paid by commuters from the Loudoun/Herndon/Reston area. That area is outside my current district but you’ll be able to hear the unhappiness when this reality settles in.

    Again, we need to reconfigure the leadership on MWAA and WMATA. And, yes, the decision to go with rail (and not bus) on the Dulles Corridor has always beenj problematic. That was the “locally preferred option” in 2002, but now we’re seeing the fiscal consequences.

  • http://www.baconsrebellion.com Groveton

    “WOW! My friend Groveton makes it sound like that NoVa’s elected representatives to Richmond and Congress sold out the region!”.

    Overall, I think NoVa’s elected representatives spend too much time caucusing with the people in their own party and too little time trying to solve the problems of their constituents. The Democratic voters in NoVa have much more in common with the Republican voters in Tidewater than the Democraic voters from the southside.

    The real battle in Virginia is not between Democrat and Republican or between liberal and conservative. The battle is between urban / suburban areas and small town / rural areas.

    Too many (but not all) of NoVa’s elected officials are only too willing to throw their constituents under the bus in order to curry favor with their statewide political parties.

    This misbehavior has been tolerated while a gusher of federal money (particularly from defense and homeland security) washed over NoVa. However, that gravy train about to carry a lot less gravy.

    Federal spending must decline. The first to go will be the extra money that has been put into defense and homeland security since 9/11/01.

    The good news is that Northern Virginia has a very well educated and employable population – with or without the extra federal spending which has been coursing through the region since 9/11/01. The bad news is that our political elite in Richmond have done nothing to make Northern Virginia the kind of place where the well educated population will stay and fight for commercial jobs once the federal jobs dwindle.

    The transportation system is a mess.

    The cost of living is high.

    There is no premier science and engineering university in Northern Virginia. In fact, there is not even an effective multi-campus program from Tech or UVA in Northern Virginia.

    There is no well organized venture capital system in Northern Virginia. Nothing like Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, etc.

    The public schools are very good but that’s been accomplished in spite of our state legislators, not because of them.

    When the federal drawdown starts in earnest, the transient people who came in on the tide of increased government spending will go out on the tide of reduced government spending.

    Some of our representatives (like Chap) are doing their best. Unfortunately, too many are not. However, they will all get a pass in the 2011 elections. That pass won’t be revoked until 2015. By 2015 the negligence of our overall state – wide representatives will be obvious. By then, the government money tree will be providing far less fruit and the hapless management of the region by the all – powerful, Dillon’s Rule loving state legislature will be obvious.

    I think 2015 could be a very good time for the emergence of a third political party in Northern Virginia and, perhaps, in Tidewater too.

  • LarryG

    ah the joys of Bicameral governance:

    ” Theory of bicameral congress

    Although the ideas on which bicameralism is based can be traced back to the theories developed in Ancient Sumer and later ancient Greece, ancient India, and Rome, recognizable bicameral institutions first arose in medieval Europe where they were associated with separate representation of different estates of the realm. For example, one house would represent the aristocracy, and the other would represent the commoners. The Founding Fathers of the United States also favored a bicameral legislature. The idea was to have the Senate be wealthier, and (apparently) wiser. “The Senate was created to be a stabilizing force, elected not by mass electors, but selected by the State legislators. Senators would be more knowledgeable and more deliberate—a sort of republican nobility—and a counter to what Madison saw as the ‘fickleness and passion’ that could absorb the House. He noted further, ‘The use of the Senate is to consist in its proceeding with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.’ Madison’s argument led the Framers to grant the Senate prerogatives in foreign policy, an area where steadiness, discretion, and caution were deemed especially important”.[1] The Senate was chosen by state legislators, and senators had to possess a significant amount of property in order to be deemed worthy and sensible enough for the position. In fact, it was not until the year 1913 that the 17th Amendment was passed, which “mandated that Senators would be elected by popular vote rather than chosen by the State legislatures”.[1]

    As part of the Great Compromise, they invented a new rationale for bicameralism in which the upper house would have states represented equally, and the lower house would have them represented by population.”

    did Virginia and America’s forefathers… screw up?

  • http://www.baconsrebellion.com Groveton

    I am not sure what a bicameral legislature has to do with a two party system other than the coincidence of there being two houses and two parties.

    Germany and the UK both have their own versions of bicameral legislatures. Yet, both those countries have more political power outside of the primary two parties.

    In the US there have been cases of political parties beyond the Democrats and Republicans. Teddy Roosevelt was a member of the so-called Bull Moose Party. Ross Perot ran as an Independent.

    I see no conflict between the bicameral legislature envisioned in the Virginia constitution and a third political party in Virginia.

    I imagine a “Virginia Urban Party” as a possibility in 2015. The goal of the VUP would be to represent the urban and suburban constituencies of Virginia. One could imagine NoVa, Tidewater and Richmond forming the backbone of the VUP. While the VUP might not ever be a majority it could become the swing vote that both the Republican and Democratic parties need in order to pass legislation.

    Let’s be honest – if our elected representatives from NoVa were really supporting their constituencies they would have already reached across party lines to other state representatives from other urban and suburban areas.

    Perhaps it is necessary for a new party to emerge before NoVa has the same aggressive representation that other areas of the state have enjoyed for many, many years.

  • LarryG

    I guess my view was shaped by this:

    ” The idea was to have the Senate be wealthier, and (apparently) wiser. “The Senate was created to be a stabilizing force, elected not by mass electors, but selected by the State legislators. Senators would be more knowledgeable and more deliberate—a sort of republican nobility—and a counter to what Madison saw as the ‘fickleness and passion’ that could absorb the House. He noted further, ‘The use of the Senate is to consist in its proceeding with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.’”

    there’s an irony here for Groveton who decries the Dillion Rule orientation of the Legislature and it’s “ruling class” “we know what is best for you” mindset.

    I’m not sure that RoVa really cares if NoVa wants to tax the bejesus out of themselves but they are not inclined to give up their school money that derives from NoVa’s very ample sales taxes.

    I’ve never seen a precise accounting of how much NoVa loses in Sales Taxes but I’ve heard a lot of wild rumors…

    I still think NoVa subsidizing RoVa kids education is a better deal than paying RoVa kids who grow up – entitlements…

  • Kevin

    We already have a “Virginia Urban Party.” It’s called the Democratic Party.