- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

Given that the price of phase one of the Dulles rail project has jumped from $1.5 billion up to $1.8 billion before turning a single spoonful of dirt, it is time to re-evaluate whether this project is worth doing at all. I have been advocating a comprehensive Northern Virginia HOT-lanes network for three years, and with the most recent price jump in Dulles rail, it seems an appropriate time to compare the two alternatives. I have challenged various supporters of the project to debate the topic. All of them, including the two leading proponents, Fairfax Board Chairman Gerry Connolly and Delegate Ken Plum, have refused, saying that as far as they are concerned, there is nothing left to debate, it’s a “done deal.”

A “deal?” Yes, for a lucky few political donors. “Done?” Not yet. I will debate any elected official that actually thinks Dulles rail is defensible. Sadly, I doubt any will take me up on this offer because they know that Dulles rail is a bad deal for taxpayers and commuters alike. It is really more appropriate to view the project as a huge real-estate transaction than as a transportation project.

While congestion in our region will not improve with rail to Dulles, and in some areas it will get worse, the value of real estate owned by Chairman Connolly’s big political donors and his employer (SAIC) will skyrocket between $2 and $3 billion. Those property value increases are what’s driving Dulles rail forward, not common sense transportation.

Virginians should know that the recent price jump of $300 million is only the first. It will be paid for overwhelmingly by Fairfax County taxpayers, since the federal contribution is limited to $750 million. That means that our share of the Dulles rail project has gone up by 40 percent, from $750 million to $1.05 billion, and no one has yet proposed how to cover the $300 million increase (hint: watch your wallet).

Unfortunately, these massive costs won’t end with construction. Fairfax and Loudoun taxpayers will suffer real-estate tax increases to subsidize every single trip on Dulles rail. These massive operating costs (over $100 million annually) have not been discussed. Indeed, when the subject is raised, proponents make up incredible performance figures for Metro that have never been attained anywhere in the Metro system in its 30-year history. For example, proponents have taken to saying that fares will cover over 90 percent of the cost of operating rail to Dulles. However, barely over one-third of Metro’s current budget is met by fares. Why should we think Dulles rail will do any better?

The existing Metro system is falling apart, draining transportation dollars and demanding more money, even with its massive unaddressed mismanagement problems. The environmental impact statement on the project that WMATA (Metro) helped write shows that the Metro extension will make congestion on the Dulles Toll Road worse at Tyson’s Corner. Why? Because Mr. Connolly is pushing huge increases in zoning density at Tyson’s. Is it mere coincidence that Mr. Connolly’s big donors in the real estate industry will reap huge profits under this scheme? All the new building means that there will be less congestion if we don’t build this project than if we do build it.

Three years ago, I was the first elected official to begin advocating high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes to reduce congestion and air pollution while opening up new mass-transit options using bus rapid transit (BRT). BRT is like a subway on wheels. Phase one of Dulles rail costs $80 million a mile versus new HOT lanes which cost about $10 million a mile. The BRT/HOT lanes approach has the potential to be the fastest and most cost-effective increase ever in both our road network and our mass transit network, without wasting taxpayers’ money and in half the time of building the rail.

Surely, considering whether to put so many of our precious transportation dollars into one expensive project that benefits so few people is worthy of debate. When a project is failing this miserably, my view is that the time to pull the plug is before spending almost $2 billion. Responsible stewardship demands it.

Variably priced tolls will help us pay for new HOT lanes, as well as reducing congestion and air pollution. When time is at a premium, commuters can choose dedicated toll lanes, freeing up space in parallel “free” lanes. With Smart Tag technology, we never even have to slow down to pay tolls. Private companies have proposed HOT lane systems for 395, 495, the Dulles Toll Road, I-66 and I-95. By adding Route 28 to this list and working with Maryland to extend HOT lanes, we can achieve a worthwhile vision for our transportation system. Now is the time to pursue it.

Ken Cuccinelli, II represents the 37th State Senatorial District in Virginia, covering Western Fairfax.

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