If your community was being threatened by an approaching storm, wouldn't you expect local authorities to help citizens avoid the coming danger? There's a lot of talk among politicians in Northern Virginia about the perfect storm of higher tolls, traffic and taxes that is bearing down on us, but meaningful action is scarce.
Some elected leaders are speaking out against the "ethically challenged" Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, or MWAA, board, and for good reason. But talk is not enough when there's so much more they can do.
MWAA operates the Dulles Toll Road under a Virginia Department of Transportation permit that specifies MWAA must make "best efforts" to complete the Dulles Rail project efficiently and on time. MWAA just applied to VDOT for a three-year extension of the completion date for Dulles Rail, citing a series of reasons MWAA feels justify a three-year delay. This dysfunctional body has made its best efforts to protect its own interests, but that is not what the operating permit was referring to.
On April 14, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton said that the state was so unhappy with MWAA that it would rather finish building the Silver Line itself. Since MWAA has proven beyond any doubt that it cannot be trusted with control of either the Dulles Toll Road or the Dulles Rail project, VDOT should deny extension of the permit and resume control of the Dulles Toll Road.
"We are actively evaluating whether we can take the project over," Connaughton said. "These guys [MWAA] are a disaster. ... We're at the point, quite honestly, where we think we could potentially do it better, cheaper, faster."
"Cheaper" is an understatement. The Commonwealth of Virginia wanted out of its obligation to fund 25 percent of Dulles Rail (about $875 million), so it gave the toll road and the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project to MWAA. The problem is that MWAA is an unelected, unaccountable body that has no incentive to operate efficiently. Now, instead of toll road users getting clipped for $875 million, MWAA intends to demand about $3.5 billion from them.
Based on the present funding plan for Phase 2, about $2 billion in Dulles Toll Road revenue bonds are needed to complete construction. But MWAA's interest rate for Phase 1 of the project has averaged 6.07 percent -- double the interest rate the commonwealth paid for transportation projects financed during the last year. Financing $2 billion of Phase 2 debt under MWAA, at an interest rate of 6 percent, amounts to an additional $120 million per year in higher tolls.
Don't miss the significance of this. Our elected leaders are hiding behind MWAA because they don't want the political liability that comes with toll increases. But the cost to commuters is a toll rate high enough to pay that $120 million premium.
In simple terms, a $4.50 toll could be reduced immediately to $3.75 if Virginia would step in. With VDOT in charge, that rate could further be lowered by eliminating toll money wasted by MWAA's cronyism.
To burden toll road users with unnecessary costs is unacceptable, especially at a time when there is general economic stagnation, the Washington area faces Defense Department budget cuts and area residents will have to pay an average of $6,433 in higher federal income taxes when Taxmaggedon hits next year.
MWAA's management is a disaster that should be fixed, but Virginia's politicians must also put commuters and taxpayers ahead of special interests by addressing the root problem. No unaccountable body like MWAA should have tolling authority over the Dulles Toll Road.
Daniel Davies and David LaRock are Loudoun County residents and members of NoTollincrease.org.