Dulles rail construction. Photo by wfyurasko on Flickr.

Virginia Governor McDonnell says he fully supports the timely completion of Phase 2 of the Silver Line. Yet his administration’s political roadblocks are the biggest threat to the project.

In a Washington Post op-ed this weekend, McDonnell wrote, “Unfortunately, the project has been marked by many controversies, ranging from escalated costs, the prospect of soaring tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, legal and labor issues, and the overall accountability, membership and transparency of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA).”

The governor is blowing out of proportion MWAA’s governance, legal, and labor issues in a way that unfairly sows doubt about the transit line. Today’s interim report by the USDOT’s Inspector General found real transparency, spending, and accountability problems at MWAA, but does not find that the agency mismanaged the Silver Line project.

The high tolls are a direct result of the state’s failure to invest its own money in this critical transportation project, placing the burden fully and unfairly on northern Virginians. Instead of making the case to the Loudoun Board of Supervisors for the importance of moving forward, McDonnell’s administration is making it easier for them to vote no, endangering the whole project.

The Governor just threatened again, via a budget amendment, to withhold the state’s meager $150 million contribution to Phase 2 if his new appointees to MWAA were not seated immediately instead of on July 1st.  Fortunately, the Virginia House of Delegates voted yesterday to kill the amendment, stopping this latest threat.

One of the main points of disagreement between the McDonnell administration and MWAA has been Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). These have been successful on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Dulles Rail Phase 1 projects.

PLAs are not just about regulating union labor and wage rates for workers. They also require unions to help secure an adequate supply of skilled trades for these massive projects, and to ensure effective coordination among the dozens of trades and subcontractors, both union and non-union, for smoothly functioning, safe, and timely construction. The preference for PLAs in the bidding process seems a reasonable solution.  We should move forward with these provisions.

The governor says he is greatly concerned that Virginia doesn’t have a majority of seats on the MWAA governing board, which controls Dulles and Reagan National Airports, as well as the Dulles Toll Road and the Silver Line project.  But this regional agency has effectively served our region for a long time, completing major and complex expansions of both airports.

It is true, however, MWAA could be much more transparent and accountable, as the IG report notes. The Coalition for Smarter Growth was among the first to raise this issue in 2006 when the Kaine administration proposed handing control of the project over to MWAA.  Pressure from the governor, our federal and state legislators, and local elected officials has resulted in key reforms at MWAA. These reforms should continue, but so should the Silver Line.

The attacks on MWAA may have more to do with securing state control of future toll road revenues, for use on road projects like the Northern Virginia Outer Beltway and other rural highways, than about fixing the governance of MWAA.

We can’t know that for sure, but it’s very plausible given the administration’s power grab at the Virginia Port Authority. After reorganizing the port authority’s board to ensure control from Richmond, the administration pressed new board members to approve diverting $250 million to Route 460, a rural highway between Hampton Roads and Petersburg that Hampton Roads leaders say is not their top priority.  A similar effort by the governor to secure a controlling majority on MWAA in order to do the same thing would not work to the best long-term interests of Northern Virginians.

McDonnell says that he could not even contemplate funding another $300 million for Dulles rail without raiding other projects throughout the state. But is he setting the right priorities? What money might actually be available?

The governor is proposing to spend over $750 million on the Route 460 project. Another $244 million is being earmarked to the controversial Charlottesville western bypass, a road that appears to be ineffective and a waste of money. Millions are going to the Coalfields Expressway to support mountaintop removal in an area with little traffic.

Even accounting for these projects, there may be another $400 million available in the $1.5 billion Public-Private Transportation Act fund. Setting different priorities would free up hundreds of millions more.

It’s hard to respond to the governor’s argument that Northern Virginia is getting its fair share of the state’s funding without seeing the full picture. A clearer accounting of complicated funding flows would be helpful for both the public and legislators. Certainly, making significant investments in addressing the transportation needs of Northern Virginia should be a priority given the importance of the region to the state’s economy.

Perhaps symbolic of the administration’s priorities, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation David Tyerar made two recent trips from Richmond to Leesburg to appear before the Loudoun Board of Supervisors. He didn’t go to make the case for Dulles Rail. Rather, he spoke to promote the Outer Beltway.

The governor and secretary revived planning for the Outer Beltway, added it as a new Corridor of Statewide Significance, and are exploring the route for yet another public-private partnership.  Yet this highway would do little to help massively congested corridors like I-66, Route 50, and Route 7.  The contrast between the obstacles put before Dulles Rail by the McDonnell administration and their full-court press for the Outer Beltway couldn’t be starker.

If the Silver Line’s phase 2 fails, it will be on Governor McDonnell’s watch. He should lead the way to compromises that will allow the project to move forward, and focus more of the state’s transportation resources on this economically critical project.

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Stewart Schwartz is Executive Director and a founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which he built into the leading smart growth organization in the Washington, DC region, addressing the interconnected issues of land use, transportation, urban design, housing, and energy. A retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve service, he earned a BA and JD from the University of Virginia and an MA from Georgetown University.