Reston Spring

Reston Spring
Reston Spring

Friday, February 3, 2012

Commentary: Dulles Rail Needs a Realistic Financing Plan, Del. Jim LeMunyon (R-67th), Fairfax Times, February 2, 2012

The recent Dulles Toll Road fee increase to $2.25 one way is just the latest in a series of expected toll increases during the next several years.

Rather than just pay for maintaining the Toll Road, tolls also are being directed to pay off debt and interest used to build Dulles Rail.

So far, $1.2 billion in debt already has been issued by the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority to help pay for the $2.8 billion cost of Phase 1 of the rail project, which extends from the Orange Line near West Falls Church through Tysons Corner to the Wiehle Avenue station in Reston. MWAA is responsible for building the rail project. Tolls are expected to reach $5 each way in the next decade, and continue to increase for more than two decades afterward just to pay off debt that already has been financed.

A recent constituent survey that I conducted within the past few weeks — in which more than 600 citizens responded —found more than half of those who use the Toll Road already have reduced their use of the road because of the $2.25 toll. Forecasts prepared for MWAA agree that use of the Toll Road will go down as tolls go up.

Incredibly, an additional $1 to $1.5 billion in debt — to be paid by accelerating planned toll increases — is under serious consideration to complete Phase 2 to the airport and Loudoun County, because the federal government is unlikely to provide additional financing.

The governor and some members of the General Assembly want to help the project by providing $150 million in state money for Phase 2, with a few members requesting considerably more to “buy down” the tolls.

Although the state contribution is well intended, it still would allow tolls to double from the current forecasts by allowing additional debt financing to go forward.

We shouldn’t need examples such as Greece, Italy and the U.S.’s $15 trillion debt to realize using too much debt intended for some public good usually results in something bad. Here’s what too much Dulles Rail debt already is doing:
  • It has reduced use of the Toll Road by customers and employees of Dulles Corridor businesses, harming economic activity. Ironically, Dulles Rail was intended to improve economic activity along the Dulles Corridor;
  • As my survey indicates, high tolls are chasing cars off the Toll Road and making other roads more congested — like Interstate 66, Route 7, the Capital Beltway, Route 28 and secondary roads. Major transportation improvements should make substantial reductions in traffic congestion in Northern Virginia, not just re-arrange the problem;
  • Serious inequities arise with too much debt. The state government recently issued $3 billion in debt to fund other transportation projects statewide for the benefit of 8 million Virginians. Dulles Rail debt, of nearly the same amount for Phases 1 and 2, will be shouldered in the form of tolls by fewer than 100,000 daily Northern Virginia motorists on the Toll Road — about 1 to 2 percent of the state’s population — for the next four decades. By definition, these motorists won’t be riding Metrorail and enjoying its benefit.
Using too much borrowed money backed by tolls to pay for most of the remaining cost of Dulles Rail creates as many problems as the project solves. Alternatives include financing the project with fees paid by future Metrorail riders, especially those who use the airport, or other airport fees.

Dulles Rail needs a realistic financing plan — including a substantial federal component — before Phase 2 is started and saddles us with excessive debt, high tolls and little congestion relief for decades to come.

Jim LeMunyon (R-Dist. 67) represents portions of Western Fairfax and Eastern Loudoun Counties in the Virginia House of Delegates.

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