Rail in medians of Dulles Toll Road & Greenway wins 5/4 in Loudoun Co as leading opponent flips

July 4, 2012

2012-07-03: Leesburg's Republican Ken Reid was the most articulate and forceful critic of the Metro Silver Line extending Dulles Rail into Loudoun County where he is one of nine elected supervisors (councilors.) But in a flip today he voted in favor of the rail transit project and provided the key swing vote for a 5 to 4 tally in favor.

That means all the local government financial commitments are in place for Phase 2 of the Silver Line project which depends for over half its funding or $1.4 billion on bonds secured to the revenues of the Dulles Toll Road.

Swing voter Reid is being called - and this is the kindest term - a "Judge John Roberts" for a last minute decision to "sell out" his conservative colleagues.  

The vote commits the county to funding 4.8% of the $5.6b Metrorail line's capital cost of the project or $269m plus $18m/year in annual losses of the Metrorail system, and increasing year by year. This for a county with 312k population in the 2010 census, so $860 per person upfront and $60/person/year. It is an area of almost Texan growth coming from 170k in 2000 (142k or 84% extra people in the decade.) It is right up there with Fairfax County as one of the highest average income counties in the country.

Relentlessly lobbied

Reid seems to have been swayed by a combination of elite and peer pressure from rail enthusiasts who lobbied him relentlessly, and by the rail supporters' move to get a good portion of the county contribution from special tax districts to be established around the rail stations in the southeast of the county, well away from his own constituency in the town of Leesburg.

One of Reid's criticisms of the project was that it was all-cost and all-risk, and little benefit to most of the county's residents.

In a 'letter to constituents' Reid wrote recently: "extending Metro into Loudoun County will NOT alleviate traffic congestion; will be used by fewer than 10 percent of all Loudoun Commuters when it opens in Loudoun around 2018; AND will NOT yield a positive economic impact until 2035-2040, yet will begin charging Leesburg homeowners about 3 cents on top of their County and Town taxes, only to rise as Metro's costs increase.

"Metro will NOT necessarily boost our jobs base, will NOT help home values (except within 1 mile of the two proposed stations, according to data) and will be competition for funding for schools, public safety and other services. Plus, opting out of rail will save $580 million on the project, and about $1.20 each way for users of the Dulles Toll Road (tolls may go to $4.50 EACH way next year!)

"Loudoun's estimated share to be part of Metro in 2018 is $18 million a year, of which $11 million would come from gas taxes we pay at the pump to support our commuter and local buses and Leesburg's transportation needs. All of this money would be lost to Metro if we opt in and Loudoun will be forever beholden to an unelected and unaccountable Metro Board and Metro's never-ending demands for more cash to maintain its corroding system.  This includes $1 million in annual funds to the Town of Leesburg, which has been beneficial to finance many road projects, such as the widening of Sycolin Road.

"... a station will be accessible to us via Rt. 28 at the Toll Road - for which Loudoun taxpayers will not have to pay a dime - since Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors elected to 'opt in' to Phase 2."


But Reid agreed to support the county opting-in on condition that a special tax district be instituted in the southeast of the county covering an area within 2 miles of the train stations.

Supporters made the extraordinary claim that the train line would bring vast new wealth to an already wealthy county. A 'Loudoun Rail Now' group says with rail: "Gross County Product explodes from $21.3b in 2010 to $80.7b in 2030 to $132.8b in 2040 - a 110% increase" and that "Loudoun County will generate 40,000 new jobs with the Silver Line as the County becomes more attractive to major employers."

Stephen Fuller director of a Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University and a rail booster made these extraordinary claims (see graphic below) - although all the forecasts show 90% of travel even with the rail continuing to be by the Greenway, the Toll Road and other roads.

The Opt-Out groups showed bus transit running on the tollroads would provide superior service at a fraction of rail's costs - and therefore should support county economic development better than the higher cost, higher tax rail solution.

Governor supported also

Another factor in Reid's vote for Phase 2 may have been support from Republican Governor Bob McDonnell who wrote in the Washington Post May 11: "Phase 2 of the Dulles rail project is a critical transportation project, and I fully support its timely completion. The congestion relief and transportation options that will be brought about by this project, as well as the economic development opportunities, are vital to the future prosperity of my old home of Northern Virginia."

McDonnell was able to claim credit for forcing some reduction in costs of the $5.6b project, gaining extra representation for Virginia on the MWAA (which runs the Dulles Toll Road and the rail construction project), and eliminating a labor union racket proposed by MWAA for contracting. (An active labor union official however remains on the board of MWAA as a nominee of the Obama administration despite the conflict of interest.)

Phase 1 of the rail project costing $2.9b is fully committed and about 75% built. It goes from the existing Metro Orange Line in Falls Church over the Beltway and elevated into Tysons Corner business district where it has four stations. A portion is in a tunnel, but most is elevated (of segmental concrete box girder). It proceeds into the median of the Dulles Toll Road/Dulles Access Road (untolled). Phase 1 ends in Wiehle Avenue, Reston.

Phase 2 continues down the Dulles TR/AR with several more station, then enters Washington Dulles International Airports grounds.

The Loudon County portion involves construction for 5 miles up the Dulles Greenway with stations at Routes 606 and 772 about half way to Leesburg. Operators of the Greenway have not been active in the controversy about whether the rail line should be constructed in their median. The Greenway was planned to allow for the rail line and one Greenway official told us he thought on balance it was probably good for the privately owned tollroad - because of extra development it might bring to the county.

The Silver Line will be 23 miles, 37km long with 11 stations. Phase 1 to Wiehle Avenue is due to open by the end of 2013 and Phase 2 into Dulles Airport and Loudoun County by about 2018.

There will be 20 station stops between downtown DC and the train line's end at VA772 in the middle of Loudoun County. The segment from Rossyln directly across the Potomac River from DC through DC is heavily trafficked because a Blue line from Arlington joins the Orange line and the trains of two lines have to share track in the Rosslyn-Foggy Bottom tunnel under the Potomac and on the one line within the District.

This already causes delays in train service into the District, delays which will be exacerbated by the extra Silver Line trains.

To alleviate that congestion a WMATA study proposed a new subway line driven from Rosslyn north in s new rail tunnel to Georgetown and then east along M St into Washington to Union Station and beyond. Another plan involved a new line East Falls Church to Rosslyn for an express route from Dulles in to DC. (see 2001 Washington Post map) These are financial fantasies given their cost and the lack of money for far more basic rehabilitation of the existing network, but in their absence the Silver Line trip to DC is bound to be slow and aggravating.


Contrary to the view that the Silver train line will bring great development to Loudoun County is that it will be so slow and inconvenient with trip-end mode changes, and stopping every 'station'  - compared to the near door-to-door cars, vans or buses - that it will attract little patronage and little development. And in this view the tax and toll burdens of supporting the loans needed to pay for the $5.6b Line and the train's operating losses will make it a serious net detriment to the corridor.

New sensing and control technologies heavily favor flexible and customized rubber-tired modes (cars, vans, buses etc) over trains on 19th century steel rails with their old 'switches' and 'stations.' Road-based vehicles provide the more personalized door to door modes, offering a range of price/service options, versus the train's one service, no options.

The Google car and other self-driving vehicles offer the prospect of major improvements in the convenience, efficiency and safety of road travel, while there are no similar scenarios for improvement in mass transit.

Also road travel is by and large financially self-supporting whereas every rail service needs considerable subsidies from government budgets. Rail doesn't provide service of value to customers sufficient to get anywhere near paying its way. That is especially true of rail in low density fringe areas like Loudoun County VA.

Financial crises could well see metro areas forced to heavily reduce or even abandon rail service because of its drain on their budgets, whereas road travel is financially self-sufficient.

Ken Reid is a colleague and a friend. He's a specialist journalist and publisher like us - but in the health regulation and medical devices area.  And he's a great guy. And deserves credit for taking transportation issues much more seriously than most elected officials. And he has had the courage to challenge popular elite opinion.

But in the end Ken Reid voted for a technological dinosaur and a financial disaster, and did a grave disservice to his constituents.  Sad, because he knows better.






TOLLROADSnews 2012-07-03

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