The Silver Platypus

Last week, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority announced it was considering scrapping the Silver Line stop at Dulles Airport.

Though the Silver line was designed specifically to provide service to Dulles Airport, MWAA Board Member Bob Brown said it “wouldn’t be much of an additional burden on riders because even if Metro stopped at the airport people would still have to take a hike to the airport terminal” (1,150 feet – more than three football fields).

That’s right, MWAA just admitted that the proposed metro stop at Dulles Airport would be so inconvenient that air travelers aren’t likely to use it. So if the Silver Line is really just a westward extension of commuter rail that might not even stop at Dulles Airport, why is MWAA still involved?

More importantly, why would Virginia (one of only eight states with a AAA bond rating and the only one to have kept it without interruption for the last seventy years) surrender authority over a $6.8 billion infrastructure project to a notoriously secretive and debt-addicted semi-private entity like MWAA?

Virginia turning the reins of a large and complex project over to an opaque agency with a worse credit rating than France might seem completely backwards, but maybe the alternative to MWAA is even worse. One argument in favor of giving MWAA jurisdiction over planning the Silver Line is that it is a less wasteful and incompetent entity than the Kafkaesque Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which will ultimately run it.

WMATA’s shortcomings are well documented: it boasts a credit rating of A1 (the rating Italy just lost, “somewhat more susceptible to the adverse effects of changes in circumstances and economic conditions than obligors in higher-rated categories”), expects an revenue shortfall of $89 million for FY 2012, and can’t even keep the escalators in Metro stations from falling apart and injuring riders (let alone prevent train collisions).

Virginia’s decision to play along with MWAA has led to a great deal of confusion about the Silver Line’s cost and timeline, stemming from planning decisions like the infamous underground Dulles Airport Station (a pet concern of Mame Reiley) and the Project Labor Agreement (PLA) mandate slipped in by Dennis Martire (MWAA Board member and VP at the Laborers International Union of North America).

Before MWAA decided that Dulles Airport might not need a metro stop at all, nine members of its governing board felt that building a “first-class” Dulles station was so essential that it was worth hundreds of millions of dollars in extra costs to site the station underground, 500 feet closer to the terminal. Once Virginia voters found out, an unprecedented coalition of local politicians from both parties threatened to stop the project altogether unless plans for the underground station were scrapped.

Once sufficient political pressure mounted against the PLA mandate, MWAA released a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that stated “no prime contractor working or seeking to work on Phase 2 shall be required…to become a party to any labor agreement other than the Phase 2 PLA.” Ironically, no one can seem to agree what this MOA means: it states in the same breath that no prime contractor shall be required to sign a Project Labor Agreement but that the Phase 2 PLA is binding.

Both of these major crises point to a central underlying flaw in MWAA’s (and WMATA’s) governance: it is unaccountable. MWAA exists in bureaucratic limbo, a “a public body corporate and politic and independent of all other bodies” (VA Code § 5.1-153), meaning that it is exempt from federal contracting requirements like competitive sourcing and from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In response to these concerns, there are two pieces of legislation making the rounds in Richmond, HB 33 (whose many patrons include Barbara Comstock – R, 34th District) and HB 2 / SB 3 (Bob Marshall – R, 13th District / Dick Black – R, 10th District).

Both of these address themselves to clarifying the Project Labor Agreement issue: if PLAs are mandated for Phase 2, Virginia will not fund Phase 2. HB 33 is a strongly worded piece of legislation aimed at ensuring that future joint infrastructure investments with neighboring states will not conflict with Virginia’s Right to Work law.

However, HB 2/SB 3 goes a step further by explicitly requiring MWAA to comply with Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act in order to become eligible for Virginia funds, addressing the underlying flaw in MWAA’s governance that allows this type of controversy to fester.

Biologists like to joke that the platypus is an animal designed by committee, being possessed of features that seem to have no practical necessity like a duck bill, poison claws, electroreception, and egg-laying.

The Silver Line extension of Metro is the platypus of infrastructure projects: a confusing and often contradictory mess of atavistic regulation and bureaucratic overlap that ought to be scrapped and redesigned from the ground up.

It remains to be seen whether the Virginia legislature has the wherewithal to do so.