As expected, proponents of the Dulles Rail project are relying on the most optimistic projections to support the need to add rail to our transit options, while opponents point to the enormous cost and the selective burden faced by Dulles Toll Road commuters to cover the financing. Beyond the political theater, it would be fair to say that there is enough uncertainty to apply the highest level of scrutiny to the proceedings.
Having examined some of the documents on the Loudoun County website, most notably the Dulles Rail traffic and revenue projections, and the updated Fiscal Impact Analysis, I must echo the findings by Terry Maynard of Reston Citizens Association Board of Directors/RCA Reston 2020 Committee, who in a recent letter to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and Gov. Bob McDonnell, states that “The key point is that Metrorail to Loudoun will bring major infrastructure investment and financing costs with it that will outweigh—probably by far—the economic benefits that may accrue to the county over the next several decades.”
[Editor’s note: The most recent county data also shows that fares on the Dulles Toll Road are likely to rise significantly without another source of funding, regardless of the stations in Loudoun.]
I have also come across various studies elsewhere (such as the Mineta Transportation Institute College of Business, San José State University) that address the success or failure of urban rail systems and the factors that make them successful. Using a rail system as a tool for development is not always successful, particularly when ridership projections are largely overestimated.
Then, through the kindness of Tony Howard, CEO of the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce, comes “Making the Case for Transit/WMATA Regional Benefits of Transit,” in part produced by Smart Growth America. Here, Metrorail is being presented as a revitalizing catalyst for economic growth, but looking at the density of the neighborhoods helped by Metrorail stations, specifically the New York Avenue station, there was clearly a significant level of population and business demand already in place, well inside the Beltway. Looking at the Shady Grove station, did building the Kentlands and King Farm developments reduce either Metrorail’s operating deficit or Montgomery County’s property tax rate?
Can Ashburn, all by itself, generate enough economic impact within a ½-mile radius of the proposed station to justify building a station? Compared to Vienna, Dunn Loring, or West Falls Church? Occasional shopping trips to Tyson’s won’t cut it. A successful urban rail system connects major destinations with each other, carrying all-day traffic in both directions, such as Tyson’s Corner and Bethesda. Or Gallery Place and Union Station.
Ashburn is a bedroom community, not a vibrant urban destination, at least not yet. So, let’s focus on infrastructure: According to the EPA, “The average American family of four uses roughly 400 gallons of water per day at home. Roughly 70 percent of this use occurs indoors.” So, if Dulles World Center, International City, Kincora, West Dulles Station and Moorefield Station are all built out, to the tune of thousands of households, along with Metro-stimulated growth in surrounding communities, how many miles of pipe have to be laid to pump water for daily use? How much water can Loudoun Water pump? From which source? How much wastewater will this development create and where does it go? Who pays to fix the pipes when they break? I see nothing in any of the project documents, so far, that addresses Metrorail impact on budgeting for maintenance of public infrastructure.
[Editor’s note: Loudoun Water, which conducts its own infrastructure planning, has a relatively new facility in Ashburn and is not a county entity. Users pay the Loudoun Water bills, not the county. Loudoun residents who are not on wells use Loudoun Water.]
Sure, proffers are nice, but once the neighborhood opens for business, it comes out of the county budget, right? What about schools, pensions, potholes and other commitments that the county taxpayers have to meet?
[Editor’s note: By most calculations, multifamily housing, the primary type that increases with Metro, has a lower impact on schools, the single highest cost to local government, than single-family houses or townhouses.]
If you tell me that the answer is continuously increasing bond debt, I think we are creating a Ponzi scheme by relying on future development to pay for what is proposed today. One day, the bottom falls out. Seriously. As Loudouners we must ask ourselves what are we putting in jeopardy to pay for Rail to Ashburn. Let’s find an alternative that solves the problem at lower cost with less uncertainty.
Now, before the Loudoun Board of Supervisors makes its July decision, it has the strongest bargaining position. Once the ink in on the paper, a 4.8% share in the construction cost does not inspire much confidence that once Phase 2 is launched Loudoun has much clout. It is not clear as to whether the terms are negotiable or “take it or leave it.” Are any of the terms modifiable? Can Loudoun require performance standards or limits to its financial exposure? There is apparently little recourse for Loudoun taxpayers if the actual revenue and economic development fail to meet expectations, and the price goes up. How do we hold MWAA/WMATA accountable? There may be a time to make a bold move and say that whatever happens, we’ll make it work somehow. Or perhaps, as I strongly suggest, the bolder move is to walk away from the seductive allure of the big game and tell MWAA to call back when the numbers make sense. Please Opt Out.
Robert M. Jones
Blue Ridge District