Attendees of Wednesday's Loudoun Chamber of Commerce’s breakfast discussion on proposed Metro service to Loudoun heard more about a study that touted the positives impacts and that the commonwealth might be willing to pay more than the $150 million recently approved.
While the breakfast session focused on the study Stephen S. Fuller, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, performed on the projects financial impacts to the region, Virginia Sec. of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton told the audience the state may contribute more once some things are worked through with the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority.
“The governor, who is from Northern Virginia, knows is it critical to extend rail to Dulles and beyond to Loudoun County,” Connaughton said.
Chris Browne, manager at Dulles International Airport, said the project would help the airport double its traffic and become a global hub.
“I think it’s important to recognize that Dulles is not a fully mature facility,” he said, adding that the goal is to expand from the 25 million passengers in 2011 to more than 50 million in the future, a prospect more difficult without rail. “Without it, Dulles will not achieve its intended goal of being a world class airport.”
Many other airports have saturated their space, so Dulles offers significant potential, Browne said. Connaughton built on that, describing the potential for the region, and Loudoun in particular.
“We are one of the most competitive states in the United States when you look at all the economic indicators,” he said, adding that the airport is a source of potential investment for Loudoun. “It’s bringing in international investors that use that gateway on a daily basis.”
Two significant issues regarding MWAA for many supporters of the project have garnered much attention: incentives for a project labor agreement, or PLA; and membership of MWAA’s board of directors. While recent changes in the law call for MWAA to have two additional members from Virginia, the state and that body disagree about when it takes effect. MWAA believes it does not take effect until July, after the Loudoun Board of Supervisors decides whether to participate.
Connaughton said Virginia seeks more influence because he views Phase 2 of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project as a Virginia project that should comply with Virginia laws that currently do not permit state funds to be used for projects that have PLA incentives. In past statements, he suggested the project might be in better hands with the state. Wednesday he said the state at least wanted to have appropriate influence on a project that’s entirely funded within the state.
“This is now a Virginia project,” Connaughton said. “Things have changed dramatically.”
While he did not reiterate wishes to take over the project, Connaughton told the chamber audience that if concerns with MWAA’s management are worked out, Virginia may pitch in more to help keep the cost of fares on the Dulles Toll Road, a primary source of project funding, down.
“This is something we’re more than willing work with, and work with the General Assembly to keep the tolls down,” he said.
Fuller, who earlier this week released his rail study, continued to describe starkly different futures for Loudoun, depending on its rail decision.
“With that connectivity, no county in the Washington Metropolitan region can compete with Loudoun,” he said. “Without it, it’s a lot more like Frederick, MD, except for the airport.”
In addition, Loudoun’s amenities and diversity makes it the most attractive county in the region with rail. With or without rail, Loudoun will do well, he said, but there’s potential to beat competitors to the east in drawing certain business investments.
“No other area in this region can come close for 20 years,” he said.
When asked why his study appears to be much rosier than a fiscal impact study by Charles Robert Lesser & Co. for the county, he said the Lesser report “understated the fiscal benefits.”
“They are not really accounting for the non-real estate benefits,” Fuller said. “There’s a lot of other economic activity.”
Many eyes are on the Loudoun Board of Supervisors, who have the option of not participating in the project. Many board members have stated they are reserving their decision until they complete a series of work sessions and hear from the public; however, comments made during past meetings reflect somewhat on their views.
Supervisors Ralph Buona (Ashburn), Suzanne Volpe (Algonkian) and Ken Reid (Leesburg) attended the breakfast.
Opponents and supporters both had Volpe’s ear. She arrived with Robert Whitfield, a critic of the project who was denied entry to the event. She then sat next to Connaughton during the event.
Buona has expressed support for the project, although he continues to push for the most financially beneficial arrangement for Loudoun. Reid issued a statement Wednesday saying he supports rail to Dulles, but not to the two stations planned in Ashburn. Supervisor Shawn Williams has made speeches from the dais that appear to make his support for the project clear. County Chairman Scott K. York (At Large) is a long-time supporter of the project, although he has concerns about the PLA incentives. Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (Sterling) opposes the project.
The leanings of Supervisors Janet Clarke (Blue Ridge), Geary Higgins (Catoctin), Matt Letourneau (Dulles) and Volpe are unknown. Letourneau’s public statements appear to show a serious interest in the project’s potential to bring workers to Loudoun if it really drives business investment to the county. Higgins’ greatest concerns appear to be whether the new line creates a logjam at the Potomac—and whether there’s a significant construction need there—and the impact of WMATA’s union workers on the budget.
From the dais, Clarke has questioned the cost of related infrastructure and the county’s liability to pay for it as well as how rail would impact the county commuter bus service. Volpe and Reid have expressed similar concerns about the potential loss of bus service as well as a more expensive and longer commuter for their constituents.
All supervisors have stated that they have not made their final decisions.
In his statement, Reid said Fuller’s study has “pie in the sky projections.”
Whitfield, who was excluded from the meeting, said despite his work with notollincrease.com and Chris Walker in the past representing opponents, he has been excluded from meetings with leaders and MWAA.
“I just think it was improper to exclude differing points of view,” he said.
Wednesday’s event was sold out in advance. Whitfield arrived with Volpe, who asked at check-in if Whitfield could have Delgaudio’s seat. Delgaudio did not RSVP, according to those working the check-in desk and Tony Howard, president and CEO for the Loudoun Chamber. Howard also said he had a legal opinion supporting the decision.
“To me, the overarching important issue is not the PLA, it’s the toll road tolls,” Whitfield said, adding that he’d like to be able to raise that issue with leaders. “The toll road users are the primary funders of this project.”
He also criticized the way Fuller’s study was funded—by a contribution to the Center for Regional Analysis by property owners.
“Obviously, they’re the ones that have the most to gain,” he said.
Delgaudio, who did not attend, issued a statement questioning the exclusion of Whitfield and a colleague with Loudoun Opt Out.
“It may not be illegal to have private meetings with elected officials about how business can benefit from a multi-billion dollar boondoggle,” Delgaudio wrote in the statement. “But it sure looks bad.”
[Correction: Robert Whitfield said excluded opponents from meetings about rail was improper. A typo in the story has been corrected.]