Future Of The Silver Line
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
From WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, free speech, lies and stolen valor. The Supreme Court says lying about receiving military honors is not a crime. But first, the first stumbling block came over the placement of a tunnel. Then there was controversy over whether to use union labor in a right to work state, followed by the possibility that Loudoun County, a key stakeholder in the Silver Line project might opt out. This morning the county's board of supervisors voted to go all in on the project and create new tax districts to help pay its share of the bill.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
So is the effort to bring real service to Dulles and beyond finally on the right track? Here to help us figure that out is Martin Di Caro, he is WAMU's transportation reporter. Martin, thank you for joining us in studio. I know you had to take a ride through the crowded streets of Wisconsin Avenue to get here.
MR. MARTIN DI CARO
Yes, the meeting and my work after the meeting wrapped up about an hour ago so I did get back here faster. There was no Metro to take so I had to take the highway.
Joining us also in studio is Chris Miller. He is the president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. Chris Miller, thank you for joining us.
MR. CHRIS MILLER
Thank you very much for having us.
And joining us by phone is Geary Higgins, member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. He serves on the board's transportation land use committee. Geary Higgins, thank you for joining us.
MR. GEARY HIGGINS
No problem, nice to be here.
You too can join the conversation. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Will the Dulles rail project change your routine? If you're a Loudoun County resident or you work there, we'd like to hear from you. 800-433-8850. Martin, Loudoun County's Board of Supervisors voted this morning, as we mentioned, to stick with the Silver Line and create a new tax district to help fund its share of the cost of the project. What does this mean for the future of the Silver Line?
Well, for starters, the project won't be delayed. And it was barely voted in. It was five to four in favor and right until the very end, really right until up to last Friday it was really 50-50 as to whether or not the county was going to along with this. Ken Reid, one of the supervisors who had been on the fence, came off the fence, decided to support the project and from that point on there was the five vote majority.
So there won't be an 18-month delay on the Silver Line. There won't be the need to have to redesign the line, do another environmental impact study and then eventually have all the shareholders come up with a plan just to extend the line to Dulles Airport. So now that this is in, Loudoun is the last real political obstacle for now. This was the last real big issue before the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority can now do two things.
One, start putting out requests for contractor's bids and two, begin setting the higher tolls on the Dulles toll road. They have projections for that, now they have to actually start setting the higher toll rates between now and next 40 years. And that's going to be one of the largest aspects of this story moving forward. Higher tolls on the Dulles toll road. 'Cause whether Loudoun was in or out, those tolls are going up significantly and they are financing 75 percent of phase two. $2.7 billion project so they're expecting the tolls to float the majority of the bonds they're going to have to take out for this.
Supervisor Higgins, you were one of the no votes this morning. Why?
Why. I don't believe that the funding plan for Metro, for phase two is viable. I don't believe it's in the best interests of Loudoun County. I think as you just heard Martin say, the toll road is going to pick up the majority of that, 75 percent, he says. And I felt that we had an opportunity before signing the deal to negotiate a better arrangement and the rest of the supervisors did not agree.
What for you would have constituted a better arrangement?
Basically, there had to be more money brought to the table to fund this project. I mean, phase two of the project has no federal funding in it and that's because we don't meet federal guidelines for density, for mass transit like this. State funding over the total project is $150 million and so the rest of this is borne on the toll road users and the tax payers in Loudoun County. And so, what happens if people start fleeing from the toll road? I can tell you one person I know that's already done that in the morning and that's myself because of the tolls.
Here's Martin Di Caro.
Well, Supervisor Higgins is bringing up some very legitimate concerns about the way this is being financed. And I think if all the parties could go back 10 years in time, maybe they'd come up with a better idea. But the fact of the matter is there'd be no federal funding whatsoever if this was done in one piece. There are two phases for the Silver Line. Phase one got $900 million, nearly a billion dollars from the federal government. As he alluded to, because of the lack of federal criteria, phase two does not meet federal criteria for ridership, population density.
No federal money at all. So the burden fell on Fairfax, Loudoun, the State of Virginia and at this point the State of Virginia is only contributing $150 million to this.
Chris Miller, as president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, some people might be a little surprised that an environmental council is in favor of the expansion of a rail line, but you are. Why?
Well, I think Metro to Loudoun represents the best way for Loudoun to become part of the 21st century. To be connected to a really vibrant region. Including Fairfax and Arlington, Alexandria, Washington, Maryland. It creates choices for people about how to move around in the region. It will allow residents of Loudoun to get to jobs and amenities around the region. But also allow people not living in Loudoun to get to jobs and economic development opportunities that are created there.
So I think as a long-term investment, it's exactly what Loudoun needs to do. It's focused on the eastern, more urbanized part of the county. And if the county takes advantage of that it will help provide focus to their future growth as opposed to the scattered development that would be encouraged by investment in an outer beltway or, quite frankly, the lack of an investment in Metro.
Let's talk about this investment aspect of it for awhile because I see different studies. One group claiming that the county would lose at least $700 million on this project over the next 30 years, another says that no, the county would lose $72 billion if it decided to forego this expansion. First you, Martin Di Caro.
There have been studies on both sides of this issue showing the potential benefits or not or lack thereof to Loudoun County. And Supervisor Higgins and I actually chatted about this at last night's meeting. There have been a couple of studies, one is called "The Lesser Study," named after its author and one other prominent economic study that are basically all over the map. Economic growth is coming to Loudoun County. It depends on where. Metro will focus it. And for folks who are concerned about the county losing its rural character, by focusing development around the future Metro stops west of the airport, that may alleviate some of those concerns.
Now whether we can predict the future -- and Chris' area of expertise and Supervisor Higgins knows this better than I do. Predicting the future about development and tax revenue, that's a little bit trickier. And so as you alluded to, Kojo, those studies are raising legitimate questions about how much the county will benefit from this. We should point out right now that the county decided on a financing framework to pay for its $270 million commitment.
That was to create special tax districts around the future Metro stops where commercial and industrial property would be taxed at a higher rate 'cause they stand to benefit most from it. And that's where the supervisor begs to differ with his colleagues who support the project. He's not confident that those districts are going to create enough tax revenue to keep this project out of the county's general fund budget.
Geary Higgins, could you go ahead and speak for yourself?
Well, I think it's interesting what Martin just said because these projections have been all over the board. And frankly, I find it rather ironic that the PEC that said that the Fuller study done, I think eight or nine years ago, that said that growth was going to pay for itself, that now they support his study that the funds coming into the Metro areas and the growth that it's going to cause it's going pay for itself. My concern is...
What's the PEC?
The PEC, you mentioned the PEC?
Oh, the Piedmont Environmental Council sitting in the room with us. Go right ahead, please.
Yes, sir, and so my concern is that what Supervisor Williams did was put together a tax district that was pretty ingenious. The problem is it takes projections on costs and financing and then revenues to all come together to make this work. And my concern is that many of these projections aren't going to happen. The Metro is already twice as expensive as it was projected to be in today's dollars. What happens if the revenues are 50 percent what we expect them, like they were at the Shady Grove station in Montgomery County.
If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. You can call us or send us email to kojowamu.org. If you're a Loudoun County resident or you work there, we'd like to hear from you. The Dulles rail project looks like it's going to be on track as a result of this morning's vote. What do you think of it? 800-433-8850. We're talking with Geary Higgins, he's a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, he serves on the board's transportation and land use committee. Martin Di Caro is WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter and Chris Miller is the president of the Piedmont Environmental Council or PEC. Chris Miller.
You know, I think all the concerns are legitimate. We've got lots of questions, too. But this is about vision, about long term investment. And we only have to look to the jurisdictions that already have Metro to see the enormous benefit in quality of life, economic investment and improvement of environmental conditions. You know, one of the things that's happening because of phase one is that Tyson's being redeveloped, not just the economic side of that, but the quality of life. It's going to be more walkable, it's going to be much more a place you can live and spend 24 hours.
More important for this region, it's going to improve environmental quality. Three ways. One, it's going to reduce the amount of storm water which is the single biggest and growing problem in the Chesapeake Bay region. Two, it's going to reduce air quality problems from motor vehicle trips. And three, it's going to create more open space actually in Tyson's then exists today because you'll be less reliant on roads. Loudoun has a chance to take advantage of this investment and change from a pattern of scattered development to more focused development and that will save the taxpayers money in the long term because you'll be focusing infrastructure.
One of the things that they've been dealing with in the last 24 hours, last four days, is the problem of providing utilities over a 500,000 acre county. If everybody lives at the end of a long distribution line, in this case, you know, electric power, it's very hard to service. Providing more focused development opportunities in Loudoun is one of the best things that could happen to them long term in terms of controlling costs.
And about the comparison -- and I'll let Supervisor Higgins clarify his remark. The comparison -- and Chris certainly you can chime in on this. The comparison to the Shady Grove stop probably is not the most sound one to make 'cause as we were chatting before the program, Loudoun has been planning for development in the Dulles corridor for a long time, 20 years at least. And I'm looking on my laptop here at a letter signed on July 15, 2002, a decade ago, by the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors affirming the plans for the Silver Line then.
So even though this is a relatively new board of supervisors, Supervisor Higgins is one of seven new members, this is something that does go back a couple decades.
You wanted to chime in, Geary Higgins?
Sure. That's interesting you bring up 2002 because in 2002 this project was supposed to cost $3.1 billion in today's money. And it's almost twice that. And the federal government was going to put in 50 percent of that money and the state 25 percent of that money and today if you combine the project one and two they're putting in about 22 percent. So what's wrong with this project is not the vision or bringing Metro to Dulles. I think everybody would agree that's a good idea. What's wrong with this project is how it's being financed and that has completely changed along with the price of the project since the beginning.
We discussed earlier one aspect of how it's being financed. I think Ed in Charlestown, W.Va. would like to speak to that. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
Hi, Kojo. How you doing today?
I'm doing well.
Well, I kind of agree with most of the people that are against the financing using the toll road to Dulles. My wife is one person that has to drive it each day and the toll rates are already high enough. And now, you know, rumor has it they're going to end up doubling to help pay for a system that people that aren't taking the toll road or don't live out in the rural areas where we do are going to use. And instead of just jacking up their rates and charging them more to ride that metro they're going to put it on people that are never going to use it, or use it so seldom that it's not as if it even existed there.
And it's not fair. I mean, unless they got a 50-year plan and they're gonna run legs off of that metro in the areas for people that are going to be paying for that on that Dulles toll road, it's not fair to make other people foot the bill to make it easier and cheaper on people that live near Loudoun. I mean, we're not part of Loudoun. That's kind of like, you know, taking their garbage and dumping it out in the rural areas...
Chris Miller, why should Peter pay for Paul?
Well, in Virginia that's a fascinating question because, you know, the state tax revenue that isn't going into this project by the decision of the governor and the Commonwealth Transportation Board is a problem. Most of the tax revenue in the state comes from Fairfax and Loudoun Counties and certainly should've made a bigger investment than 150 million. Somehow we can free up $300 million for the outer beltway from Prince William and up through Central Loudoun, but we don't have enough money for a real regional investment for the most important tax base in the state.
So I think there is a fairness question, but I don't think that the county can wait to make that decision. If it does it loses the opportunity to influence the decisions on where it's going to grow. And I think long term the economic benefits that come from being more focused and the environmental benefits and the quality of life benefits far exceed the short term cost of financing.
Thank you very much for your call, Ed. We go to Paul in Loudoun County, Va. Paul, your turn.
Yes, hi. Thank you very much. I want to say I'm a new resident of the county. I moved a little less than two years ago and I've got to say one of the primary reasons I moved to Loudoun was the prospect of the Silver Line. I never would've moved out there 'cause it's so, you know, too cut off from the D.C. area which I've lived in for, you know, 30 years had it not been for that.
And I was pretty shocked and appalled to see the Tea Party types, you know, pushing this opposition to the plan. And I thought that to not do it would not just be pennywise and kind of foolish, but would, you know, create -- purposefully create a backwater in Loudoun County compared to the rest of the D.C. metropolitan area. So I'm very relieved and happy that enough supervisors (unintelligible) listened. I actually attended the session where people could, you know, speak out on this issue. And I'm very happy that...
Well, Paul you mentioned you've been living in this area for 30 years. You moved there precisely for this reason. But, Martin, it's been said that even if the Silver Line project goes smoothly from here on out it will take longer to build these 23 miles of rail than it took to build the Transcontinental Railroad.
Well, I did not know that historical fact, but to your point tolls, next year are projected to increase, one-way full toll -- the one-way full toll, 4.50. So it's a full toll round trip 9 bucks starting next year. Projection, that's not written in stone yet. But that's -- it's going to be close to that. When you look at toll projections going ahead several decades, now it gets a little bit trickier there. Now they are obscenely high if you are a Dulles toll road driver.
However, in ten, twenty years, we'll have different presidents, different parties running congress, different state legislatures, different governors, different whole host of unforeseeable circumstances that might create a situation where we can have more federal money into this project. But for now forget about federal dollars. There are no more earmarks. Federal government's not going to spend money on this project. It doesn't meet the criteria. Earmarks are dead. The best bet is for possibly federal loans to the jurisdictions.
This project raises big picture questions about how Virginia distributes its transportation dollars. Would this be less of a problem in a better economy or if there was another way of dividing the limited money that's available? I'll start with you, Supervisor Higgins.
Yeah, I believe that what you said is correct. It would be better in a different economy. And it would be better if we could get more of that money coming into Northern Virginia where an awful lot of it's coming from. And part of the problem with this whole transportation situation we have in Northern Virginia is the state has the requirement to provide the funding for roads and yet they haven't done it. And so here we are with a toll road combination that's going to cost those who use it 20 bucks roundtrip every day starting next year. And there's nothing like that anywhere else in the state and yet we get to fund everybody else's project.
It's $9 projected next year, but it'll eventually be 20.
I'm talking about when you combine that with the Greenway. If you're coming from Western Loudoun, it's 20 bucks.
That is correct. Sorry, Supervisor.
You know, toll rates are an interesting thing. I think if you could look at it on a per mile basis, it's probably consistent with what tolls are around the country and certainly around Virginia. There're very expensive tolls per mile in Richmond. And I think that the toll rates that are going to be put in place with the hot lanes around the Beltway are going to be equivalent. So I think we're just learning what it's going to cost to pay for infrastructure going forward.
I think, you know, when you distill this down about the distribution and prioritization of resources in Virginia, which is the question that Kojo asked, the concern that we have within PEC and the larger community of people watching transportation policy is that the governor's has prioritized large highway projects that looks mostly for freight purposes and has ignored the function of the transportation network.
And one of the things that is so important about the Silver Line is that it will actually reduce congestion on the existing road network. None of the other investments that the state is making will do that. They will increase the number of cars on the road. They'll increase the number of vehicle miles traveled. And that formula leads to more congestion. So if viewed only from a transportation perspective, this project and the improvement of rail on 95 corridor down to Richmond should be the two highest priorities for the state, they're actually the lowest.
The ridership projections are not great, though.
But compared to what else is being done, this is the only thing that has the prospect of reducing congestion overtime.
Running out of time, what's next as we look ahead to the completion of this project, Martin Di Caro?
Well, for the next six years, higher tolls without access to metro. There will be requests for contractors to put in bids this summer and higher toll rates will start to be scheduled in the fall. And barring any other unforeseen obstacles or trip-ups, this project should go ahead as scheduled. Construction is supposed to begin next year.
We'll see how that evolves. Martin Di Caro is WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter. Martin, thank you for joining us.
Kojo, had a great time.
Chris Miller is the president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. Thank you for joining us.
Thank you very much.
And Geary Higgins is a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors who serves on the board's Transportation Land Use Committee. Supervisor Higgins, thank you for joining us.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here.
We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be looking at the issue of Free Speech, Lies and 'Stolen Valor.' I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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