We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Guest Host: Matt McCleskey
Transportation: it’s a perennial issue at the center of most every election or political debate in the Old Dominion. With traffic a never-ending conundrum — whether you’re talking I-95, the Capital Beltway, the Dulles Toll Road, or other streets — we ask if new high occupancy toll lanes and a Metro extension to Dulles airport will actually ease congestion. Virginia’s Transportation Secretary joins us to discuss transportation priorities.
- Sean Connaughton Virginia Secretary of Transportation
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here in WAMU, sitting in today for Kojo. Transportation woes are a perennial topic of conversation in the Old Dominion, from creeping traffic to crumbling roads to crowded buses. In fact, it often seems like everyone in the state has a gripe about what needs to be built or fixed or torn down to ease the flow of traffic. So who would want the seemingly thankless job of being Virginia's point man on transportation?
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYWell, former Prince William County supervisor Sean Connaughton accepted that challenge. He serves as Virginia secretary of transportation, overseeing seven state agencies with 10,000 employees and combined annual budgets of $5 billion. He's been in the news this week, amid questions about who will pay for the second phase of the Metro rail extension to Dulles Airport. He's with us today to talk about that Metro project, the tolls that will help fund it and the billions of dollars in highway projects that are underway in Virginia. Secretary Connaughton, thanks so much for joining us.
SECRETARY SEAN CONNAUGHTONMatt, thank you very much for having me on.
MCCLESKEYWell, let's start with the Silver Line. The second phase is in the news this week because of disputes over the funding. Virginia has pledged $150 million. Some local officials, though, want the state to put in more. How much money is Virginia committing to the project, and what are the conditions for that contribution?
CONNAUGHTONSure. Obviously, the project itself is...
MCCLESKEYOh, have we lost Sean Connaughton? Hello, Sean Connaughton? Well, we will attempt to get that line back up. We are, of course, talking with him just now about the Silver Line extension of Metro rail to Dulles Airport. We are going to be opening the phones as part of this conversation. So as we work to get him back on the line, let me go ahead and just give that number. You can call with your questions regarding transportation in Virginia, 800-433-8850. You can also email us at email@example.com, to send us a comment via email. Again, that's 800-433-8850.
MCCLESKEYAnd I believe we do now have Sean Connaughton back on the line. Hello, are you with us? Nope. We're still having trouble. Well, apologize to our listeners for that. We are working to try to get that line reconnected with Sean Connaughton, the secretary of transportation for Virginia. Well, you can call us with your questions about transportation in Virginia, whether it's the Silver Line project extending Metro rail to Dulles Airport and beyond into Loudon County.
MCCLESKEYOf course, also high-occupancy toll lanes or HOT lanes are under construction on the Capital Beltway in Virginia. There are some other projects with HOT lanes planned going down on I-95. So wherever in Virginia, your transportation or your trips take you, if it's up and down I-95, we're just around the Capital Beltway. Even if you live in D.C. or Maryland, of course, we are talking about the Beltway and the extension of Metro to Dulles Airport.
MCCLESKEYSo that's something that affects people all over the region, of course. Give us a call. 800-433-8850 is the number, our email, of course, firstname.lastname@example.org. We are attempting to reconnect our line with Sean Connaughton, transportation secretary for Virginia. And I'm just being told now we do have him back on the line. Are you with us?
CONNAUGHTONYes. I'm here.
MCCLESKEYGreat. Sorry for all that confusion. Appreciate your sticking with us on that. You were just beginning your response to the question about Metro's Silver Line and how much money Virginia is committing to that project and what conditions, if any, are for that contribution. Go ahead, please.
CONNAUGHTONSure. I mean, obviously, the Silver Line is a very important project for Virginia and the region and the country. The project is actually two phases. The first phase, which people see under construction right now, is around a $2.7 billion project that gets the Metro out to Wiehle Avenue, out in Fairfax County. And that project is just a little bit behind schedule but will be up and operating by December 2013. What everyone is hearing about right now is the second phase, and that is the additional, essentially, almost 14 miles from Wiehle Avenue to the airport and then into Loudon County.
CONNAUGHTONWe've had a lot of fits and starts with that project. The original estimates put the project close to 2.6, $2.7 billion. When the estimates came in on -- after they did the engineering, it came up to, like, 3.8, $3.9 billion. We've spent a lot of time with Fairfax County, Loudon County, the Airport Authority and U.S. Department of Transportation to bring the price down. And we've gotten it back down to about $2.7 billion.
CONNAUGHTONAt the end of last year, we signed essentially a memorandum of agreement among the main parties in which Virginia committed $150 million specifically for toll mitigation over the next two years because almost 75 percent now -- between 50 and 75 percent of the cost of doing this project are going to be paid for by the revenues from the Dulles Toll Road, which is a state property, which we turned over to the Airports Authority for this purpose.
CONNAUGHTONWhat ended up happening was essentially the General Assembly looked at potentially giving additional money to the project. And that did not make it into the final budget. It's something, I think, that we have a little bit of time to be able to deal with, and so we're going to be working with our partners on trying to get phase two moving forward. In fact, yesterday, Fairfax County committed to the project, and the next big vote is Loudon County...
MCCLESKEYYeah. And I do -- I want to get back to the toll issue on the toll road there in a few minutes. But, as you mentioned, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted yesterday to proceed with its roughly $500 million contribution to phase two. But in Loudon County, some supervisors are reportedly questioning whether or not to put up their $260 million share. What do you think is going to happen there, and what happens if Loudon backs out?
CONNAUGHTONWell, obviously, the partners have all, you know, tried to do everything they could to keep this project moving forward. Loudon County has some concerns, obviously, about -- and we have essentially a whole new board of supervisors out there. They are, you know, just took office and -- just back in January, so they, you know, really are going through their first budget and also looking at this project.
CONNAUGHTONThey have some concerns about the costs and its impact of Loudon County, and also there are issues that, you know, we're dealing with, like this project labor agreement that is for preference right now in the proposed project R.P. that will come out from Airports Authority that we're all working on. But we're obviously working to address the Loudon County concerns and hopefully get them to stay on the project. And we're going to continue trying to work this. It is a very important project. It's important not just to Fairfax and Loudon but the entire region.
MCCLESKEYWhat leverage does the state have in that negotiation with the officials in Loudon County?
CONNAUGHTONWell, it's not even necessarily leverage. It's really about -- really, it's about education. It's about trying to figure out what maybe their concerns might be. How do we end up addressing those concerns? So it's really right now at this point really trying to just work with them on addressing any issues that they have so that we can work with the other partners to address them and get them to support the project.
MCCLESKEYWell, you mentioned the General Assembly did not put in any additional money this time around. Do you think in future years there's a chance the state could wind up contributing more to the project?
CONNAUGHTONWell, there is that opportunity. I mean, one of the things that folks have to keep in mind is that the actual contract for this project will not be awarded until January of next year or January, February, which is right in the middle of the next General Assembly session. Virginia's $150 million contribution, which we essentially worked within our current funding streams to provide, that $150 million is specifically there to help deal with tolls.
CONNAUGHTONIn fact, we're setting up a trust account. It will be used to help offset the debt and the principal payments that are going towards the project. That should keep the toll rates, you know, in the three-or-so-dollar range versus going up to $4 or $5 or $6. So there is this opportunity to come back and revisit this for the General Assembly. The -- but there are some issues that we have.
CONNAUGHTONI mean, one of the things that came up in the General Assembly this year, you know, concerns about, you know, how the decisions have been made by the Airports Authority, the management and oversight of the Airports Authority, things like that that we're going to have to be working on to make sure everyone is onboard before we can go back to the General Assembly.
MCCLESKEYI do want to ask you about the tolls on Dulles Toll Road 'cause, as you've mentioned, a big chunk of the Metro extension being paid for by those toll revenue, the numbers I'm seeing say, as early as next year, one-way tolls could rise from $2.25 to $4.50 by 2018. A one-way trip could cost $6.75. How high can tolls go before drivers would look for alternate routes?
CONNAUGHTONWell, and that's obviously a big concern for us. I mean, as we've gone into this thing -- I mean, quite honestly, these rates, these toll schedules that people are being concerned about now were always there. I mean, in fact, when they made a decision several years ago to move this project forward, the toll schedule that people now raising concerns about were -- was always on the table.
CONNAUGHTONNow that we're into it, now that we're trying to move the project forward, I mean, those go from being just numbers on a piece of paper to actually, you know, being something that's facing people, you know, directly. The $150 million that we're putting forward will keep the tolls just a little over $3. And so, essentially, we'll foreclose for the first couple years them going up to even up to the $4.50 amount.
CONNAUGHTONSo one of the things we're going to have to working with the Airports Authority is, you know, working on how do we, you know, continue to drive down the cost of this project, as well as to do -- you know, working with them on some better financial management, better oversight. These are things that are actually provided for in this agreement that we signed among the parties back in December.
MCCLESKEYAnd what are the issues among who served -- about rather who serves on the Airports Authority Board? I know there's been some dispute there regarding whether it's state appointed members or how much influence the state has in deciding who gets to be on the board. What's the issue there?
CONNAUGHTONYeah. I think -- well, most people who are in your listening audience don't recognize that the Airports Authority is really technically a joint authority between the District of Columbia and Virginia. It was that joint authority actually is leasing the airports from the Federal Aviation Administration under a law that was passed back in the 1980s. But the challenge we have is essentially that Airports Authority Board has five Virginia members.
CONNAUGHTONBut it also has three members from the District of Columbia, two members from Maryland and three federal at-large representatives. So we have two airports that are completely in Virginia that oversee -- the Airports Authority oversees two airports in Virginia, the Dulles Access Road, the Dulles rail project, as well as Dulles Toll Road. Everything is in Virginia.
CONNAUGHTONAnd this has been a challenge for us because, you know, we don't feel necessarily we're getting the representation that we need for looking at the fact that this is really a Virginia-centric organization. And so there was legislation -- it was passed last year -- that actually increased Virginia's membership and representation on the board, as well as making other changes.
CONNAUGHTONUnfortunately, the Airports Authority has not been supportive of implementing those changes. We're working with the District of Columbia to implement those changes. The Virginia General Assembly actually passed a law that actually allows us to move forward on putting more people on. So this is an ongoing saga. Part of it is just the structure that was mandated by Congress way back in the 1980s when we took control of the airports.
MCCLESKEYAnd is Virginia's contribution to the Silver Line contingent or tied to that issues of who fills the seats?
CONNAUGHTONWell, we committed to $150 million under a memorandum of agreement that essentially is a, you know, self-contained document. Our issue on the 150 is, you know, the continued effort to put some sort of labor preference in the RFP that the Airports Authority is pursuing. Virginia is a Right-to-Work state. Virginia is one that, you know, generally, we are neither for or against there being organized labor on our projects.
CONNAUGHTONIn fact, many of the projects -- the large projects I oversee have some sort of project labor agreement. The issue for us is we believe it always should be voluntary, and initially, the airports authority was going to mandate project labor agreement. Now, they're putting a preference in. We don't think the preference is appropriate. It's not in conformance with the recently enacted law in Virginia.
CONNAUGHTONBut more importantly is here we spent all this time trying to figure out ways to lower the cost of this project and almost immediately the airports authority, you know, put in a preference that does not focus on cost. It focuses on something else. I mean, we need everyone to be on board that we have to keep the cost of this project as low as possible because of its impacts on the toll road users.
MCCLESKEYWe're speaking with Sean Connaughton, Virginia secretary of transportation. We're going to get to the phone calls in just a minute. But I do want to broaden out first, Mr. Secretary, to others who's beyond the Silver Line. Gov. McDonnell has made transportation funding a top priority this year, but general assembly may not be following his lead on that when the assembly votes on the state budget next week.
MCCLESKEYIt looks like some modest measures, like selling naming rights for roads and bridges may pass, but not, perhaps, once they might bring in more revenue for transportation. What's the mood in Richmond for transportation spending?
CONNAUGHTONWell, I mean, one of the big things that we were pursuing this year was to dedicate a greater portion of the sales tax to transportation. One of the big challenges that we see as well that other states are seeing, that the federal government is seeing, is that the gas tax is -- it's been the long staple and foundation of our transportation revenues.
CONNAUGHTONUnfortunately, due to cars becoming much more efficient, due to the fact that people are changing their habits, particularly in times when you see gasoline going up to $4 a gallon, that actually if -- we're starting to see a decline in our gas tax revenue. So we proposed -- the governor proposed actually taking a greater portion of the sales tax and putting it into transportation. That was not successful this year.
CONNAUGHTONBut we're going to continue trying to find other avenues to move the transportation funding program forward again because we see right now, 85 percent of my gas tax goes towards maintenance because that's not keeping up with whether inflation or less use, I mean, greater use and less revenues. I now have to take money from my construction account over to my maintenance account. And that is now at the tune of almost $500 million a year. So we got to find a way to address this issue.
MCCLESKEYWe do want to go to our caller Jessie, calling from Arlington, Va. Jessie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JESSIEHi there. As I've been listening to the secretary talk about cost and just this last discussion about the gas tax, the harder issue is really this: Republican politicians in this state have taken this ridiculous pledge never, never, never, to raise taxes. That is the problem. I'm a taxpayer. I'm retired. I have a fixed income. But I traveled all over this country, and I saw the building of the Interstate Railroad -- Interstate Highway, excuse me, and yet the other day, I saw in public television the program about the construction, the Grand Coulee Dam.
JESSIEAnd all these great infrastructure projects is perfectly obvious that they cost lots of money, they need to sustain revenues and the issue is to hear you talk about all these ways you're trying to lower cost or find revenues. The issue is because the Republicans will not raise taxes. It's an abrogation of their duty, the responsibility to have the citizens pay for these things. I don't like taxes, but I like the highways. I like the schools. I like, you know...
MCCLESKEYMm hmm. Jessie, I get that just what you're saying. Let's get a response from Secretary Connaughton. Well, Mr. Secretary, do taxes need to be higher to fund transportation adequately?
CONNAUGHTONWell, I mean, obviously, we have a -- Virginia's sort of a unique state in that we have a stand alone special fund known as Commonwealth Transportation Fund. So we get no general funds going into transportation, nor generally do any -- my special funds go to the general fund. I mean, one of the challenges we face, and, in fact, particularly in Northern Virginia, is that I actually -- we send to Northern Virginia, specifically, more money than we're collecting from our transportation, you know, through our transportation program.
CONNAUGHTONAnd it's sort of an interesting thing. You look at Northern Virginia, and folks can point to the fact that it pays a great deal of taxes to the general fund. But, actually, it is being subsidized by the rest of the state when it comes to transportation. And what we're facing, though, in a long-term is that you're looking vehicles becoming -- I mean, when we look at the gas tax, I mean, the gas tax as a -- your mechanism for transportation funding, was enacted when it was eight to 10 miles per gallon for a vehicle.
CONNAUGHTONNow, we're looking at 40, 50 miles per gallon, the new CAFE standards. The gas tax is honestly something that we really can't, in the long-term, be relying on, given the fact that cars are becoming much more efficient. And we have now greater uses of alternative fuel vehicles. And we're also having other things pull on our gas taxes. I mean, it was a very interesting thing as, you know, on the one hand, we're -- we support and we want people to use transit.
CONNAUGHTONWhat folks have to understand is that transit doesn't pay for itself, that transit is actually subsidized by gas taxes, and that causes -- when I mentioned this issue before about we -- people are changing their driving or habits. You know, when people say, oh, $4 a gallon, I'm going to move and start taking a bus, that's a good thing.
CONNAUGHTONBut on the other hand, the gas -- the tax revenues, which help subsidize that bus, are lost when we do that. So it's a real complex problem. It's not just there is no single solution to this, and that's one of the things we're all coming to grips with nationally, as well as the state.
MCCLESKEYWell, thanks for your call, Jessie. We mentioned at the top of the broadcast, this is a regional issues. We have a call from Maryland as well, Christine calling from Derwood, Md., with a question. Go ahead, Christine. You're on the air, please.
CHRISTINEHi. Thank you very much for taking my call. I'm really liking what I'm hearing about what's going on in Virginia. But what -- my big concern is I don't live there. I live in Maryland, and we've had the gas tax that -- we've had all these type of issues going on, and nothing seems to be happening in our legislature. And I'm wondering what good is it if Virginia is doing such a good job and then everyone comes to the borders and everything gets stopped up? Like, what can we do here since you're doing such a good job there?
MCCLESKEYWell, thanks for your call, Christine. Another issue there, Secretary Connaughton, the HOT lanes on the Beltway in Virginia would -- if they don't extend into Maryland, what does it mean then for people who are in those lanes when they get to the border?
CONNAUGHTONYeah. All right. Listen -- and, in fact, I was with my counterpart, Beverley Swaim-Staley, in fact, this morning talking about some issues, across-the-border issues, specifically with Metro. And, listen, we work very closely with Maryland, and we try to make sure we coordinate our plans. Right now, just because of some of the things we're doing, I think people are seeing an enormous amount of construction going on in Northern Virginia, whether it's the -- whether it is the HOT lanes on the Beltway, which will be done by the end of this year.
CONNAUGHTONWe're looking at actually late November, early December opening for those. We're starting construction on the HOT lanes going down 95 and, with that, the extension of the HOV lanes all the way down to Stafford. We got the Silver Line. We're making improvements on 66 outside the Beltway, inside the Beltway. We're constantly putting money in, and you're right. I mean, one of the things is we got to make sure that we coordinate with Maryland and the District so that all the improvements we're making are not for naught because people do come to a halt at the border.
CONNAUGHTONBut there are many things in Maryland that -- I mean, they have to work through to the legislature and through their agencies. We can, you know, we can encourage them, and we can work, we can plan together. We're doing a very good job at that, but they also are facing some of the same funding issues that we face.
MCCLESKEYLet's go now to Steve calling from Richmond in Virginia. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead.
STEVEGood afternoon, Mr. Secretary. I'm one of those road warriors who commute from Richmond to Northern Virginia to work. And my concern with all the talk of tolls on 95 and congestion that seems to be getting worse every year is, for years now, there's been talk of the extension of the VRE or some sort of light rail between Fredericksburg and Richmond. It just -- it seems to be stymied. Has there been any progress on that or the extension Amtrak or anything that would help guys like me get to work?
CONNAUGHTONWell, actually, so I'm the opposite of you. I commute every day from Northern Virginia down to Richmond, and I don't know why everyone complains about 95. It's great going southbound at 4:30 in the morning. And -- but I'm always happy that I'm not going northbound anymore when I see the amount of traffic. And, obviously, we're facing the fact that, in the Washington region, in Northern Virginia specifically, economies are so strong, people start coming up here, and we're facing a lot of congestion problems.
CONNAUGHTONOne of the things that we're looking, and you mentioned it, is we are looking and we are working with the federal government to get the approval to toll 95 south of Massaponax to the North Carolina border to start making capacity improvements on the 95 corridor. We also have the HOT lanes, HOV lanes, which, again, will -- is starting construction soon. They'll move the HOV lanes down to Stafford County. And then we have the plans to move it -- and the approvals to move it from there down to Massaponax in the next few years.
CONNAUGHTONWe are a very strong proponent of using passenger rail. In fact, the state is subsidizing a new service that just started recently from Richmond up to Washington. That is what we're calling Amtrak Virginia, which -- very successful after a model that we did for Lynchburg, which has been probably one of the most successful startups of a passenger rail service that we've seen in a very long time. It's actually running in the black, and it is running every day from Lynchburg up to Washington and back.
CONNAUGHTONThe service from Richmond to Washington is the first step of what will be then a service that we will start up at the end of this year, also in December of this year, that will start from Norfolk, stop at Petersburg, Richmond and then go up to Washington, D.C. And that will be, by the way -- hopefully take a lot of people who are going to -- between these two very heavily government military centric areas such as Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., get those people off the road. And that service we know will be a very big success.
CONNAUGHTONAnd so there is an opportunity for folks who ride. VRE extension, I mean, we are right now -- Spotsylvania has recently joined VRE, so you're seeing the service going down to there. We're working with CSX. We've actually signed a contract with CSX, an agreement that gives us more slots so that we can move either VRE trains in the future or these Amtrak Virginia trains over those rail lines. And so you're going to see more services. And in long term, we'll work with North Carolina on hi-speed rails from Charlotte all the way up to Washington.
MCCLESKEYAnd we're going to need to leave it there. But, Sean Connaughton, Virginia Secretary of Transportation, thanks so much for joining us.
MCCLESKEYWe appreciate it. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll find out how the principles of economics can help you find great food that’s' just on the side. Stay with us.
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