Airports board chairman hits Wolf proposal for overhaul

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The chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Board of Directors on Wednesday publicly criticized a measure introduced by a Northern Virginia congressman that would overhaul the board’s structure and grant Virginia a majority of its seats.

The authority came under fire this year for its vote in favor of an underground Metrorail station as part of Phase 2 of the system’s 23-mile extension of the Silver Line. The board reversed its decision in July, instead supporting a less costly aboveground station under pressure from the public and local and state authorities.

But a proposal by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, which would expand the board and allow its members to be more easily replaced, was a bridge too far for Chairman Charles Snelling and the board, which opposed it Wednesday after a lengthy executive session.

“We really don’t think it’s in the interest of the metro communityor the nation,” Mr. Snelling said. “The airports are federal airports in Virginia - they’re no more Virginia’s than the Pentagon. Nobody would say the Pentagon is Virginia’s. It was carefully conceived that the airports should be run by people who have a stake in it.”

Virginia would be granted a majority of the seats on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) Board of Directors under language in the fiscal year 2012 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development funding bill, currently advancing through the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mr. Wolf, a Republican, also introduced legislation in May that would increase the number of members on the board from 13 to 17 and the number of Virginia members from five to nine.

Currently, two members are appointed by the governor of Maryland, three by the D.C. mayor and three by the president. Members would also not be allowed to serve after their terms expire, instead of the current practice of serving until a replacement is appointed.

“It was done to protect Virginia’s interests at the request of the governor, and also as a way to ensure that we keep tolls as low as they can be,” said Dan Scandling, Mr. Wolf’s chief of staff.

Gov. Bob McDonnell said the state has been put in an “untenable position” with the current makeup of the board.

“Both airports are in Virginia, but yet Maryland, D.C. and the federal government control the majority of the votes,” Mr. McDonnell said this week, adding that taxpayers in Loudoun and Fairfax, as well as Dulles Toll Road users, are going to be footing much of the bill for the project. “So there are just some structural imbalances. Nobody’s taken a look at this in a while, and I’m just trying to do what’s right for Virginia.”

While other officials have indicated that the state has agreed in principle to commit an additional $150 million to the second leg of the project, Mr. McDonnell said it still wasnt a done deal.

“We’re working through that. We realize that this is a very important project,” he said, adding that he was “hopeful we can have an agreement that would allow Virginia to have some additional investments in exchange for really important, common-sense structural governance issues that will get MWAA running as effectively as it can.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general, Calvin L. Scovel III, is also conducting an auditof the authority at the request of Mr. Wolf and Rep. Tom Latham, Iowa Republican.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has been mediating discussions between stakeholders involved with the Silver Line as they try to figure out a way to shave the cost of the $3.5 billion second leg of the project.

Under the current funding formula, 75 percent of costs would be borne by Dulles Toll Road users, 16 percent by Fairfax County, 5 percent by Loudoun County, and 4 percent by MWAA.

Fairfax and Loudoun have tentatively agreed to assume the costs of a rail station and parking garages as part of a cost-cutting deal to trim about $1 billion off of the price tag for Phase 2.

Phase 1 of the project, which will stretch from East Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, is scheduled to be completed in late 2013, according to MWAA. Phase 2, which will extend through Dulles Airport into Loudoun County, is scheduled to open in 2016.

Drivers now pay $2 one way on the road, and some projections have put the cost of a full one-way trip between $10 and $20 by 2040, depending on whether the federal government chips in low-interest Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loans.

MWAA spokesman Rob Yingling, however, cautioned that any such estimates were based on old data, that a new traffic and revenue study is currently under way, and cost projections for Phase 2 of the project have not yet been finalized.

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