We have spent days (weeks? months?) on the biennium State Budget. We are very close to a final agreement, as a conference report is now before us. Some parts are good, some parts are bad, and some parts are ugly. It’s the same from year to year.
One part is missing:
The Senate in its budget, which passed 34-5 last month, inserted $300 million in additional funding for the Dulles Rail project. That goes with the $150 million proposed by the Governor to “buy down tolls” for northern Virginia commuters — a proffer that resulted after direct lobbying by NoVA legislators.
With the Dulles funding stripped out, a budget stalemate is in the offing. Is this just a regional issue? Not hardly.
Dulles Airport connects Virginia to the world. With non-stop flights to the capitals of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, it is the nerve center of our international travel. It has driven the unprecedented growth in western Fairfax and Loudoun Counties.
The Dulles Rail project was conceived years ago. It was already “old news” as a regional and state objective when I joined the NoVA Regional Commission as a young City Councilman in 1998. And yet it languished for years, as we fought through various recessions (recessii?) and other projects took priority.
During that time, it was the focus of criticism and controversy, particularly in the failure to “tunnel” through Tysons Corner or implement a BRT system as an intermediate step. I’m aware of these criticisms, because I made them.
But let’s not lose sight of the Big Picture. Dulles connects Virginia to the world. (There, I said it twice). Along with the ports of Hampton Roads, it represents the focal point of our international trade and commerce. That trade is growing.
That brings us to the 2012 special session.
Heretofore, the Commonwealth has done little to support this critical state project. Instead, the project has been funded by local landowners, local governments, the Federal government and (overwhelmingly) the commuters in the Dulles Corridor.
Seeking to change this dynamic, the Senate — after significant debate — added the additional $300 million in state money. Note that this is barely 6% of the overall project cost, which is more than $5 billion.
Yet it’s critical, especially as local governments (like Loudoun County) must decide to commit their own money to Phase II of the project, which will link the Rail Line to the Airport and into Loudoun.
Is the project perfect? No. Is MWAA, the operating authority, perfect? No. But no project ever is. (Don’t believe me? Read a history of the intercontinental railroad, the most important infrastructure project in U.S. history).
Where can this money come from?
Well, we’ve got $4 billion allocated in projects from the bonds approved last year. Or we can look at projects like the widening of Rte 460, which is not supported by a single jurisdiction in southeast Virginia yet will cost $500 million. In fact, the City of Portsmouth told us recently they don’t want “this very costly capital project.”
Why are we dumping money in a project nobody wants, and ignoring Dulles?
The biennium Budget is a unique opportunity to fix this situation. While transportation projects are not typically itemized in a biennial budget, it’s not unprecedented. What is unprecedented is the lack of state support for a project that will bring billions in trade and revenue to the Commonwealth.
The Governor can win this battle with a stroke of his pen, by making a firm fiscal commitment to Dulles Rail. It’s all in his hands.