Lake Anne's Washington Plaza in Summer

Lake Anne's Washington Plaza in Summer

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Dulles rail project needs better FTA oversight, audit finds, Washington Post, July 28, 2012

The Federal Transit Administration’s oversight of the Silver Line rail project must be more responsive to safety issues and more aggressive in its monitoring of costs and scheduling, according to a federal audit released last week.
The 44-page report by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general focuses on what actions the FTA has taken to address safety concerns first raised in 2009. It also recommends that the agency use its oversight role to ensure that costs are more closely monitored.

The 23-mile Silver Line rail project is being built by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and is one of the nation’s largest infrastructure projects. But the project has been dogged by political battles over its price tag, disputes over funding, and concerns about whether MWAA and other parties involved in its construction are doing enough to ensure passenger safety. . . .
The rest of this article provides a some details on the areas of concern.  It includes a claim by "proponents" of the line that it will carry 60,000 passengers a day--a number we are not sure appears in any published forecast of future passenger use, although we would like to see the Silver Line fully utilized.

 Click here for the rest of this article. 

This final report is the first of two US DOT's OIG is conducting of MWAA's management of Silver Line construction.  The other report focuses on Phase 2.  It's preliminary report on the results of that Phase 2 audit were presented in an interim letter to Congressman Frank Wolf--who called for the audit--in mid-May.  

We certainly share the view that MWAA needs greater responsible outside oversight because, as of now, it has none.  It is a power unto itself, even ignoring the Virginia Governor's appointment of new members to the MWAA Board of Directors.   In another step in that direction, Congressman Frank Wolf is leading a legislative effort to create a permanent Inspector General for MWAA, but that is not an effort that will become reality before this year's elections. 

For those of you who would like to read the DOT's Office of Inspector General's full44-page report, we provide this link to the full PDF download.   Below is the summary of the report:

On July 26, 2012, we issued our report on the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) oversight of phase 1 of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project.  This was a self-initiated audit subsequent to a Management Advisory we issued in October 2009, which expressed concerns about the safety of using 11 pier foundations to support part of the Dulles project’s guideway.  Our audit found that while FTA implemented an oversight process to ensure that MWAA tested the 30-year-old pier foundations, the testing process has not yet provided assurance that the structures will meet the 50-year service life specified in FTA guidance.  We also found that, as of February 2012, when we issued our draft report, FTA had not taken sufficient mitigation actions to address key project issues that put the schedule, cost estimate, and funding from the 2009 Full Funding Grant Agreement at risk.  In its response to our draft report, FTA agreed to direct additional testing to further ensure the 50-year service life for the structures and to take acceptable actions to address the key project issues we raised.

Monday, July 23, 2012

AAA: Dulles Tolls Are “Reverse Robin Hood Syndrome”, Fairfax Times, July 23, 2012

By James Hood
Northern Virginia motorists are being “nickled and dimed to death at the toll booth,” Mid-Atlantic AAA charged today, calling the $6 billion construction of Metro’s Silver Line and the tolls that are financing it, a “silver bullet” aimed at the heart of motorists and consumers.
Noting that another round of toll fee hikes is in the offing for users of the Dulles Toll Road, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which operates the toll road, John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic Manager of Public and Government Affairs, said the MWAA has shown itself to have a “tin ear” to the complaints of commuters. . .
. . . “Now the motoring public will feel the full brunt of the toll rates on their wallets and household budgets,” Townsend said. “By capturing the hard-earned money of motorists at the toll booth, the MWAA is financing the construction of the 23-mile, 11 station extension of Metrorail from East Falls Church to Washington Dulles International Airport west into Loudoun County.”
“That’s the reverse Robin Hood syndrome, and it is sickening to motorists.  That’s robbing from the poor to give to the rich,” Townsend charged.
We have put it a different way, but it delivers the same message:  The Dulles Toll Road will become the "Highway of the One Percent."  Only they will be able to afford the $18.75 full one-way tolls--more than $30 one-way for Loudoun commuters from Leesburg and beyond--by 2047.

Click here to read the full text of this excellent article.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

News Flash: Drivers Avoid Tolls, Sightline Daily, June 28, 2012

Over the past couple of months, we have detailed how the explosive growth in tolls in the Dulles Toll Road as forecast by MWAA's traffic and revenue forecaster, CDM Smith, will result in the diversion of a substantial volume of traffic to other local roads.  The diversion derives from two sources:
  • The toll increases become less affordable for drivers and their "value of time" calculation (a CDM Smith turn of phrase--price elasticity of demand in economic-speak) makes them change their preference for using other roads.
  • Over time, the growth of jobs and population along the toll road corridor sees an unmet potential as many of these new potential toll road users divert to other roads, switch to some form of public transit, or work from home.  
The results as we have calculated them suggest the following near and long-term consequences:
  • Next year, if tolls double as forecast, CDM Smith forecasts that toll road use will decline by 18%--or 36,000 trips per day given the more than 200,000 daily trips on the toll road according to a survey by CDM Smith.  Since there will be no Metrorail and Fairfax and Loudoun County have no plans to expand bus transit for the one-year gap before Phase 1 of the Silver Line is in service, that means 36,000 trips per days on area roads.
  • In 2050, more than 100,000 trips per day will be diverted to local roads by our calculations.  That allows for one-quarter of the future growth in employment and population in the "prime market area" (roughly the area north of Rt. 50 and east of Rt. 15--Leesburg) to take public transit (bus & rail) or work from home.  The job and residential growth estimates are those by CDM Smith's socio-economic forecaster, Renaissance Planning Group.  
Here's what that result looks like over the next four decades:

 


Now it appears that we are not alone in forecasting huge traffic diversions from exorbitant toll increases.  Sightline, a non-profit Washington state-based planning group, reports in an article by Clark Williams-Derry in Sightline Daily that Seattle in facing the consequences of major toll increases for a major area tunnel.  Here is how his article, "News Flash: Drivers Avoid Tolls," begins:
For Seattle traffic-watchers, Mike Lindblom at the Seattle Times has the most important story of the month: the news that a new state traffic study predicts that high rush hour tolls on the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel will divert 9,100 cars into downtown Seattle during the afternoon commute. For those of you who are counting, that’s a diversion rate of about 42 percent.
The Times editors considered it a bombshell. It was the day’s top story, above the fold, with a huge headline.
But here’s the thing: it’s not really news. Well, it’s only sort of news. I mean, there really was a new tolling study on the Viaduct, and it really did predict that lots of drivers would avoid the tolls by driving on surface streets. Yet the new study reached almost exactly the same conclusion that WSDOT itself reached last year.
Williams-Derry makes an important observation about why the insight--provided a year earlier--was largely ignored:
I suspect it’s part of a regrettable human foible: in context of a political campaign or a hotly contested public policy controversy, people view facts as weapons for winning arguments, rather than as a means for discovering the truth. When emotions run hot, the press tends to evaluate factual claims for how they’ll affect each side’s political fortunes, not for whether they’re important or true.
Now that the the political controversy has subsided, the press can once again cover the facts about the Viaduct a little more rationally: weighing their validity and exploring the implications. Better late than never I suppose. Still it’s a shame: just when the public was in greatest need of solid facts, the press seemed more focused on the politics than the substance.
In the context of the Dulles Toll Road, we have seen some reporting on the toll increase-traffic diversion phenomenon from local newspapers, particularly Patch.   Still, most of the media's focus has been on the comments of politicians and advocates (pro or con, left or right) rather than on the facts--more accurately, a balance assessment of the available data--as Williams-Derry suggests. 

So while the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors cared not a whit about these assessments nor conducted any of their own on the implications of higher tolls, the Loudoun Board considered but disregarded the traffic and other implications of huge toll increases on BOTH the DTR and the Greenway, and the state of Virginia has not even begun to fathom the implications for its transportation budget planning, we now face a situation where all parties are flailing to find funding to lower tolls and minimize the impact of diversions.

When politics trumps rational and systematic planning and problem solving, the community--local, county, state, and even federal--pay the consequences of poor decision making, in this case, for at least four decades.  

Virginia Loses Title as Top State for Business on Infrastructure and Transportation Issues

In its annual ranking of top states for business, CNBC dropped Virginia from the top spot to #3 this year.  The single most important reason for the drop by far was the cut in the state's ranking on "infrastructure and transportation" from 10 to 33 among the nation's states.   The state's ranking in "cost of doing business" also dropped significantly from 21 to 32.

Here's is what CNBC had to say about Virginia:
 Virginia: Road to Trouble
So what happened to Virginia — last year’s top state?
The Commonwealth is still a contender, finishing a solid third overall. But it faltered in two categories in particular: Infrastructure and Economy.
Infrastructure — specifically the state’s perpetually clogged highways — has long been an issue in fast-growing Virginia, and there is fresh evidence this year that the state is having trouble keeping pace. With some of the country's toughest commutes, the state dipped to number 33 in the category, down from 10th a year ago.
Virginia’s economy remains in the top tier. But it has suffered in part due to circumstances beyond its control. The state’s proximity to Washington, DC has helped in previous years. Late last year, however, Moody’s slapped a negative outlook on Virginia’s otherwise pristine bond rating because of the federal government’s fiscal crisis. That contributed to Virginia slipping to 10th from eighth in our Economy category this year.
While still the envy of most states, Virginia declined in a total of six categories in 2012. The other four are Cost of Doing Business (32/21), Education (13/6),Technology & Innovation (14/11) and Business Friendliness (4/3). In this competition, you can’t post that many declines and stay on top — or, it turns out, finish second either.
Yet both state legislators in Richmond and our supervisors in Fairfax County continue to short change investment in infrastructure and--especially--transportation.  It is a key reason why the Washington metropolitan area remains one of the most congested metropolitan areas in the country.   
 
And, yet, as we plan for Reston's future, Reston Task Force members have so far been unable to persuade the County staff and even the Task Force chairman (who also heads the Dulles Corridor Railway Association rail advocacy group!) to make implementation issues a key element of the new Reston plan.  Some headway was made at the last Task Force meeting when Fairfax Department of Transportation staff reported that peak period delays at "gateway" intersections in Reston (along either side of the toll road) would quadruple from their current one-minute level.  Several Task Force members insisted that some mechanism be included in the plan that ties development to needed enhancements to infrastructure.   But the County has not yet agreed to that.

Also noteworthy is the state's loss of stature in Education from #6 to #13.  Virginia has long had one of the premier higher public education systems in the country, but lack of funding is eroding that stature.  Locally, the Task Force has yet to acknowledge the need for an elementary school in the Reston Town Center area under the draft proposal for residential development there, although the area will produce more than an average school-full of kids if development proceeds as forecast.

Just another reason on top of huge toll increases on the DTR why prospective businesses and residents may look elsewhere for easier access to employees, residents, visitors, and shopping.

As an early RCA Reston 2020 document submitted to the Task Force said, "Planning without Implementation is Empty."  Surely our community can do better than this.

Hey, It's Worth a Look, Bacon's Rebellion, July 16, 2012

James Bacon, who manages the Bacon's Rebellion blog, had this to say about newly discovered excess funds for Dulles rail.  He begins his post . . .

The good news: The McDonnell administration has discovered $5.4 billion in “surplus” bond proceeds to help pay for Dulles Rail. The bad news: Money dribbles in slowly and it’s all there is to pay for Dulles Toll Road improvements over the next four decades. . .
 He notes this about the ways the state can spend the money:
The state has three broad options on what to do with the money: Use it to pay for improvements to the toll road, one of Northern Virginia’s critical transportation arteries; renegotiate bonds to lessen the burden on toll road users, who could wind up paying as much as $8.75 per trip in 2025 and $18.75 by 2048; or return the money to the state. Initially, the surplus will be small, Whirley explained, but enough money could accumulate within a decade to help out toll road users by renegotiating some of the project’s more expensive debt.
Our thoughts:  With the projected DECLINE in toll road usage as a result of the skyrocketing tolls, we don't think that the money needs to go to improve the toll road--and MWAA is responsible for maintaining it.  And for goodness sake, don't return it to the state. 

Applying it against the $17 billion in debt service and operating costs MWAA projects is best way to use the money.  It would lower prospective toll increases by almost one-third--a huge savings over the next four decades. 

There's other good stuff in this post.  Read it here. 

Parc Reston Ready to Clear Way for Towers, Reston Patch, July 18, 2012

By Karen Goff
 Demolition is set to begin this week at Parc Reston, where three buildings in the garden-style condo development will be razed to make way for two 14-story towers at Temporary Road and Reston Parkway. . . .
Read the rest of the article here.   And here is a rendering of the two new towers from Patch. 

Frank Wolf Asks Attorney General to Probe Greenway Tolls, Fairfax News, July 18, 2012

By Jim Hood
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) today asked the Virginia Attorney General to have his consumer protection office examine the toll structure on the Dulles Greenway, charging that Greenway users are the victims of “highway robbery.”
“I believe you have the ability to give these residents a way to fight what I call ‘highway robbery,’” Wolf wrote in a letter today to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.  “If there were ever a group of consumers in need of protection, it is those who pay the Greenway tolls.”
Wolf, a longtime critic of the TRIP II, the firm that operates the Greenway, and its foreign-based parent company, Macquiare Ltd., believes the original state law allowing a private corporation to own and operate the Greenway is flawed because it fails to protect the consumer. . . .
Click here to read the rest of this article.

Congressman Wolf makes an important point.  Under the current agreement with Virginia, TRIP II has the right to increase tolls at the GREATER of GDP growth, inflation, or 2.8% through 2020.  No discussions have addressed the future beyond that date.  At the moment, it is difficult to believe either inflation or the economy will grow at more than 2.8% over the rest of this decade.

Yet tolls on the Dulles Toll Road are forecast to grow at a much greater rate.  Tolls are forecast to double next year and triple in 2018 according to the official MWAA forecast.  That means tolls will be growing at a 14.7% annual growth rate through 2020.  Even if the forecast horizon is extended to 2050, Dulles toll road users face a more than octupling of tolls or an annual increase in tolls averaging more than 5.7% through 2050. 

Moreover, TRIP II must seek state approval for its increases, meaning it will need to get state approval for rate changes beyond 2020.  MWAA faces absolutely no review of its toll rate changes.  There is no federal or state authority overseeing its rate increases at any point under the agreement Virginia made with MWAA to manage the toll road. 

If we assume that the Greenway extends its current rate increase terms and the DTR tolls proceed as forecast, drivers from Leesburg and points west will face a toll of $30.89 in 2050, or $12.09 in today's dollars at a 2.5% inflation rate.  Route 267--the Greenway and the DTR--will truly become the HIGHWAY OF THE ONE PERCENT. 

Here's what that looks like:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Press Release: LeMunyon Pushes Back on Tolls, July 17, 2012

LeMunyon Pushes Back on Tolls
Richmond—Delegate Jim LeMunyon (R-Fairfax/Loudoun) pressed the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority (MWAA) yesterday to find alternatives to using Dulles Toll Road tolls to fund completion of the Dulles Rail Project. MWAA operates the toll road and sets toll prices.

MWAA’s Chief Financial Officer, Andrew Rountree, and Greg Whirley, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) made a joint presentation about Dulles Toll Road tolls yesterday afternoon before the Transportation Accountability Commission, of which LeMunyon is a member.

According to information presented to the Commission by MWAA, traffic volume on the Dulles Toll Road has decreased 10 percent since 2009 as tolls have increased.

“It’s clear from MWAA’s own data that existing tolls are already chasing cars off the Dulles Toll Road and thereby worsening traffic congestion on other arteries in Northern Virginia. Because of poor financial planning for Dulles Rail going back several years, we now find ourselves in a situation in which Dulles Rail is increasing congestion in Northern Virginia,” said Delegate LeMunyon. “Incredibly, 54 percent of the cost of Dulles Rail in the current MWAA financing plan is to be borne by toll payers. Whether it’s the Dulles Toll Road or any other toll road in Virginia, tolls should be used to build and maintain the road that’s tolled, and not used as a cash cow for other purposes.”

“Unless an alternative financing plan is found, congestion will only worsen in our area if tolls double or triple, as forecasted in MWAA’s projections, and more motorists stop using the Toll Road. While some people believe the state should assume greater financial responsibility for Dulles Rail, Commissioner Whirley made it clear that additional state funding for Dulles Rail would eliminate funding for other transportation priorities,” said LeMunyon.

LeMunyon proposed to MWAA at yesterday’s meeting that it engage the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority (WMATA), which operates Metro, to build the Dulles Rail construction financing costs into future fare card prices, which would more directly align the cost of the project with the people who benefit from it. LeMunyon has also called for the federal government to shoulder some financial responsibility to complete Dulles Rail, as the project connects the nation’s capital to its international airport and therefore provides a national benefit. The federal contribution for Phase 2 of Dulles Rail is presently zero.