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Throw Dulles Rail Under the Bus

Last week, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and the Fairfax Board of Supervisors granted the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors a 30-day extension to review the final cost estimates of Phase II of the Dulles Metrorail project. Unless MWAA agrees to drop a provision giving preference to bids that include a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) by then, Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors will likely opt out of participating.

And, since the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has admitted that Phase II would be built to Route 28 with or without Loudoun County’s help, why wouldn’t they?

It would be politically suicidal for a board of first-term republicans to sign off on a scheme that gives a 10-percent scoring bonus to firms who use union labor, effectively shutting non-union contractors in Virginia (a right-to-work state) out of the contest.

The Virginia legislature passed a new law banning discrimination against bidders for refusing use PLAs this year, and Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton has pledged that he will use the law to withhold all Virginia funds (no matter how much the Senate appropriates) unless MWAA drops the provision.

It’s possible that the unelected and opaque MWAA might drop the provision, since losing Loudoun County and the State of Virginia would mean losing hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding.

Even if MWAA does acquiesce, the Loudoun Board of Supervisors still has plenty of reasons to balk.

For one thing, new evidence is emerging that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) suffers from a culture of complacency, incompetence and discrimination.  Antiquated ink-and-paper record keeping allowed metro employees to steal almost half a million dollars in coins, and a class-action lawsuit alleges that “an entrenched network of African-American employees at WMATA…is able to steer jobs, promotion, training and other career enhancing benefit to persons of their own racial or ethnic group.”

And let’s not forget that Bus Rapid Transit is still an option for Loudoun County commuters. Cost estimates for a fleet of high-speed buses to ply the Dulles Airport Access Road (which already exists) come in at just under $300 million, as opposed to over $3 billion for Phase II. And a BRT scheme would be 30 percent more popular -- over 13,000 daily instead of about 10,000 for rail.

Finally, Loudoun County has yet to hammer out a deal with WMATA regarding the operating costs of metro stations. Current estimates place annual costs between twenty and thirty million dollars, depending on whether or not Loudoun is required to contribute to Metro Bus services, since there is currently no plan to add Metro Bus services for Loudoun County.

Backers of Dulles Rail hope that giving Loudoun County another month to weigh the pros and cons of opting in to the project will give them time to win over new supporters.

Fortunately for Loudoun County taxpayers, the high up-front costs and total lack of good data on the tangible benefits of extending Dulles Rail six miles into Ashburn will likely sink the project.

It’s time to literally throw this project under the bus and start moving forward with a practical and cost-effective BRT system.