When Virginia decided to hand over control of the Dulles Metrorail project to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in 2006, the intention was to create a more cost-effective, better-managed project protected by the unelected board from fickle political winds.
But now, authority board members are feeling the heat on all sides, as federal, state and local officials seek to shave costs and reverse the board's April vote for an underground station at the airport that would be more expensive than an above-ground alternative.
On Wednesday, the board is set to weigh a compromise proposal from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who will meet with stakeholders later in the day as the second leg of the project, eventually to run from East Falls Church to the airport in Loudoun County, hangs in the balance.
Cost estimates for the second leg have ballooned from the original projection of $2.5 billion to $3.8 billion. But the plan from Mr. LaHood, who has been mediating talks with officials from Fairfax and Loudoun counties and the state of Virginia for the past month, would shave about $1 billion from the cost of the project.
The bulk of the savings would come from reversing the board's controversial decision to build the Metrorail station underground, rather than above ground and farther from the terminal, chopping an estimated $562 million off the price tag.
"Pretty much everybody in the region has told [MWAA] they need to go with the aerial station for this project to be acceptable," Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York said.
Loudoun County supervisors on Tuesday voted to accept Mr. LaHood's proposal with some conditions. Among them, MWAA would have to donate the land for the parking garage to be built at the Route 606 station and the authority, the state, and Fairfax County would also have to accept the amended proposal.
Fairfax and Loudoun counties would absorb a combined $371 million of the costs under the plan, as Fairfax would take control of the Route 28 station and two parking garages in its region.
Those involved are hopeful a deal can be struck.
"My expectation is, and my hope is, that we basically adopt the LaHood compromise recommendation," said Charles Snelling, chairman of the MWAA board.
Thomas M. Davis III, a former congressman from Northern Virginia and the authority's vice chairman, said he didn't see how the project could be completed if the board stands by its decision on the underground station.
"Members feel very strongly that for the future of the airport, it's better to have an underground," he said. "In a vacuum, I think they're right. The question is, can we afford it?"
Proponents of the underground station point to widespread dissatisfaction with the station near the old terminal at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, located 1,000 feet away, as evidence that an underground station at Dulles would help the airport and the thriving region more in the long run.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, who was part of a federal agreement in 1987 to transfer control of Reagan Airport and Dulles airports to MWAA, has asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct an audit of the airports authority, as well as the Dulles Metrorail project.
Mr. Wolf, Virginia Republican, has also introduced legislation that would give Virginia a majority of members on the 13-member board and allow members to be more easily replaced.
Virginia has five members on the board, the D.C. mayor appoints three, the Maryland governor appoints two, and the federal government appoints three.
Once left for dead, the first leg of the project eventually won $900 million from the federal government to run from East Falls Church to Reston after the federal government deemed it not fit for funding in 2008.
The fate of the second leg, which will connect Wiehle Avenue to the airport and finish in Ashburn, also could hinge on federal assistance. Under a memorandum of agreement from Federal Transit Administration Administrator Peter M. Rogoff, federal loans would be available for Fairfax and Loudoun counties to help defray some of the costs of the project.
The state of Virginia would contribute an additional $150 million under the proposed memorandum of understanding.
Despite the intentions of the transfer, the rail project could become a campaign issue ahead of the 2012 elections.
In 2006, during the administration of Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat now seeking his party's nomination to the U.S. Senate, the state approved the transfer of the project to the airports authority board. The decision was supported by a bipartisan group of congressmen, including Mr. Wolf and former Sen. George Allen, Mr. Kaine's likely Republican opponent in the Senate race. The argument at the time was that the transfer would make the project more cost-effective and better managed.
Mr. Kaine has defended the decision, while both he and Mr. Allen have urged the airports authority to accede to the wishes of the local governments.
"It's very simple," said Kenneth Klinge, a former chairman of the Dulles Corridor Task Force who works with the MWAA. "They figured out if they stayed in charge, they were the ones who were going to have to increase the tolls."
Instead, the authority is now in the second step of a three-pronged process to increase the cost of driving on the Dulles Toll Road; two-axle vehicles began paying $1.25 on Jan. 1 at its main toll plaza, a 25-cent increase. And officials project that with or without federal assistance, tolls will balloon exponentially over the next 30 years to cover the costs of the project.
A federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by two Virginia residents arguing that MWAA's toll rate increases amount to taxation without representation.
Regardless, a Wednesday showdown awaits.
"Tomorrow's a big day," Mr. Klinge said.
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