Reston Spring

Reston Spring
Reston Spring

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Focus on the Real Silver Line Story, Colin Mills, President, RCA, Reston Patch, May 16, 2012

You may have noticed that the discussion over Phase 2 of the Silver Line has been heating up in recent weeks.  The most recent headlines have centered around the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and their preference for a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) on Phase 2 of the Silver Line.

The PLA issue has been in the news for a while.  Originally, Virginia Republicans balked at MWAA's plan to require a PLA on all bids for Phase 2.  If you don't know what a PLA is, it's a bit complex to explain; but essentially, it's an agreement between the major contractors and several labor organizations for a project.  It typically sets the wages for workers on the project and mandates that workers go through union hiring halls, although the workers are not required to join a union.  In return, the labor organizations agree to a no-strike clause on the project. (Phase 1 of the Silver Line is being constructed under a PLA that the project team applied voluntarily.)

In response to Virginia's complaints, MWAA agreed to remove the PLA requirement, and instead plans to award a preference to bidding teams that include a PLA.  But some elected officials have continued to protest this, and are threatening to withhold Virginia's $150 million contribution to Phase 2 unless MWAA drops the PLA preference.  Also, the PLA issue may lead Loudoun County to drop out of the project.  Most recently, the Dulles Corridor Rail Association called on MWAA to abandon its preference for a PLA.

Meanwhile, MWAA itself is coming under fire.  This week, the US Department of Transportation released preliminary findings from its audit of MWAA.  The headlines have focused on DOT's questioning of MWAA's accountability and ethics policies, as well as some questionable expenses incurred by MWAA board members.

Less commented upon, although perhaps more relevant to Restonians, was the DOT audit's findings regarding the most recent Toll Road revenue forecast issued by CDM Smith.  The audit has found that CDM Smith's assumptions and forecasts appear generally reasonable, which agrees with the assessment RCA's Reston 20/20 Committee reached in March.  (The 20/20 Committee did some further analysis, and warned that there is likely to be approximately a 10% revenue shortfall for Phase 2 based on CDM Smith's numbers.)
But in all the back and forth about PLAs and unions and MWAA's expenses and in all the political posturing, one thing seems to be getting ignored: the fact that the majority of Phase 2's costs are still projected to fall on the Toll Road users.

Ultimately, the debate over the PLA is not that important.  It matters to construction unions and anti-union activists, but whether or not a PLA is imposed, it will not spell the success or failure of the project.  While RCA hopes that Loudoun County will remain committed to the project and that Virginia will contribute the $150 million it has promised, we have not taken a position on the PLA issue.

Similarly, while the DOT's audit of MWAA will hopefully prompt the authority to clean up some of its hazier practices, unclear ethics policies and reimbursed trips are not going to break Phase 2.  RCA also has taken no position on the DOT audit, apart from the section relating to CDM Smith's report.

Where we have taken a position, and where we are focusing our energy, is on the huge projected rise in tolls on the Toll Road, and what that means for the Silver Line project as a whole and for the traffic situation in and around Reston.  The PLAs may mean a lot to some elected officials, but the tolls are what matter most to Reston citizens.

Reston 20/20 recently released a white paper demonstrating how the projected rise in tolls would affect Reston and the Silver Line.  They ran the numbers, and found that if the tolls rise as CDM Smith forecasts, regular users of the Toll Road will see nearly half of their anticipated real income gains over the next 40 years wiped out by the tolls.  Almost half!  The toll cost for regular commuters will ultimately amount to over $8,000 a year, which is a pretty hefty chunk of change.

Facing those kind of expenses, more and more drivers will find ways to avoid the Toll Road.  Based on official forecasts, if tolls double next year as planned, 30,000 cars a day will desert the Toll Road, instead taking to the already-congested surface streets.  By the middle of the century, when tolls reach their peak, 80,000 to 120,000 drivers will avoid the Toll Road.  Some of them will take the Silver Line instead, but a lot of them can't or won't.  Instead, they'll be bumper-to-bumper on Route 7, the Fairfax County Parkway, Reston Parkway, and other Reston streets.

Faced with the choice of endless gridlock or an $8,000 annual toll surcharge, many workers may try to stay away from the corridor altogether.  This could lead employers to locate their offices elsewhere.  And that would have a major impact on the economic growth that the Silver Line is projected to bring.

How can we avoid this fate?  Reston 20/20 has an answer: Increase the cost sharing among the parties that stand to benefit from the Silver Line.  Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, MWAA, the station-area landowners, and the users of the Toll Road will all benefit from the construction of the Silver Line, whether via increased tax revenues, higher property values, easier access for airline passengers, or reduced Toll Road traffic.  Since all these parties benefits, all of them should be willing to invest in the line's success.

Reston 20/20 proposes that equal funding shares be assigned to MWAA and the counties, the station area landowners, and the Toll Road users.  This would reduce the total share of Silver Line costs borne by Toll Road drivers from 54.5% to 26.5%, which would dramatically reduce the tolls and reduce the traffic on the streets of Reston.  That's a win-win.

The bad news, for now, is that this issue is being ignored in favor of dueling talking points about unions and MWAA junkets.  But the good news is that RCA and Reston 20/20 will keep pressing this issue, and making sure that all parties involved address it.

We're not about to stop fighting for the citizens of Reston.  And we're not going to rest until there's a funding plan for the Silver Line that's fair to everyone and ensures that this investment in our future succeeds.  The Silver Line is going to change the face of Reston and the Dulles Corridor, so let's get it done and get it done right.

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