- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2008

RICHMOND — Republican lawmakers yesterday said that — unlike Gov. Tim Kaine and the Virginia congressional delegation — they anticipated federal officials would find fault with the proposed Dulles rail project because they expressed the same concerns two years ago.

“I was very opposed to it back then,” House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, said. “I think it was a big mistake. I tried to raise the issue and no one seemed pay much attention.”

In March 2006, Mr. Howell and Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, outlined concerns at a press conference in Richmond similar to those James S. Simpson, administrator of the Federal Transit Authority (FTA), detailed in a letter to Mr. Kaine last week.

Among other things, the legislators warned there were no assurances the project would reduce gridlock along the Dulles corridor and they questioned Metro”s ability to handle the added responsibilities of the project.

They also criticized the decision to transfer the project to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) under a state law that does not require competitive bidding.

“We raised some concerns and everybody just blew us off,” Mr. Albo said. “Now we are in a real pickle because now we are going to have to do something different.”

Mr. Howell said he thought the FTA “took that all into consideration,” when on Thursday it declared the project in its current form does not qualify for $900 million in federal funding.

Their concerns ranged from the project’s cost effectiveness to giving oversight to the airports authority.

Delegate Kenneth R. Plum, Fairfax Democrat, said the opposition to the airports authority’s involvement is limited to a small group of Republicans who wanted to move the project into the private sector.

“Most of us applauded when MWAA stepped up because they had experience with large projects,” he said.

Mr. Plum also noted that the FTA administrator last year notified the state that the airports authority was a “reasonable manager of the project.”

Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer yesterday countered Republicans’ contentions that the debate two years ago was about the airports authority.

“In 2006, the fundamental argument was whether a public entity should maintain and operate the Dulles Toll Road or whether a private entity should maintain and operate the toll road,” he said. “Under either scenario, the toll road proceeds could be used to fund the Dulles rail project.”

He said Mr. Kaine selected the airports authority to operate the toll road and administer the rail project for several reasons, including its tax-free bonding ability; the fact it owns the land on which the toll road is built; and a guarantee that the money raised on the toll road would be spent in the Dulles corridor.

Both Mr. Howell and Mr. Albo said the state must consider reconfiguring the plan to include cheaper alternatives.

The speaker suggested the state should visit taking the Dulles Toll Road “away from MWAA” and selling the rights to collect the tolls. He said the sale could include a cap on prices to address concerns that a private contractor would excessively inflate tolls.

“Basically the governor gave away an asset that had a value of way over $1 billion,” he said, adding that the money could have paid for the 11.6-mile rail extension to Tysons and alternatives to a rail line to the airport.

“You could take that money to build some extra lanes along the toll road or somewhere for the bus rapid transit and it would be a win-win for everybody,” Mr. Howell said.

Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, said Virginia officials ignored a letter he wrote last year, warning them about a “scathing 2002 report” from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that was highly critical of the airports authority.

“They had nothing good to say about their capacity to carry this out,” Mr. Marshall said. “If they were to read the letter, they could have seen these problems coming.”

Mr. Marshall, who is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, said the General Assembly should push for the oversight authority to investigate how the state got in this position.

“This process has resulted in a project that is moribund, if not completely dead, and the authorities in Virginia and executive have themselves to blame,” Mr. Marshall said.

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