- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Board on Wednesday reversed its controversial April decision to build an underground Metrorail station at Washington Dulles International Airport after months of political pressure from state and local officials who supported a less expensive approach.

The 11-1 vote advances a compromise plan proposed by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood containing $1 billion in savings to the project’s $3.5 billion second leg.

The approval came with some conditions, including provisions that Virginia designate an additional $150 million to the project, that Fairfax and Loudoun counties pay for parking garages to be built at stations in those counties and that Fairfax assume responsibility for funding the proposed Route 28 station.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said the county was committed to seeing it through, even though covering the cost of the Route 28 station could be a “problem.”

“It’s not a show-stopper. It requires us to roll up our sleeves, work with the state and with Loudoun in order to identify ways of paying for that station outside of the original funding plan,” she said, adding that exploring a public-private partnership could be an option.

The federal government has indicated that low-interest loans could be made available to the counties to help defray costs.

The $150 million of additional money from Virginia would help mitigate rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road. Officials estimate that with or without federal assistance, tolls could reach upward of $17 by 2040. Funding for the second leg of the project relies 75 percent on tolls.

Cost estimates for that segment have ballooned from $2.5 billion to $3.5 billion.

The most controversial element of Mr. LaHood’s cost-cutting plan was to reverse the MWAA board’s earlier action and commit to building an aboveground station that would cost about $300 million less than the proposed underground station closer to the airport.

Board Chairman Charles Snelling after the vote seemed relieved that after months of political pressure the dispute was resolved.

“Now that we’ve agreed to move it, we can get down to business,” he said. “We’re no longer the excuse or the whipping boy.”

Mame Reiley, one of the strongest proponents for the underground station, voted for the aboveground station after first saying she wanted the board to reserve the right to construct the station underground if it could produce a funding plan that costs less than Mr. LaHood’s proposal.

The lone vote against the proposal came from Robert Brown, a federal appointee, who sparred with Federal Transportation Administration Administrator Peter Rogoff over the amount of federal funding that would be made available for the second leg of the project.

“Phase 2 is heavily, heavily locally funded,” Mr. Brown said. “I guess what we’d like to do is drive a hard bargain with you and get the federal government to come to the table and support this project.”

The current funding agreement has 75 percent of the funding coming from Dulles toll road users, 16 percent from Fairfax, 5 percent from Loudoun and 4 percent from MWAA.

Mr. Rogoff defended the agency, pointing out that the federal government had already committed $900 million to Phase 1 of the project, which extends a new Silver Line from the East Falls Church station through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue in Reston at a cost of $2.75 billion.

“We’re in a period of new realizations as to financial austerity at the federal, state and local level,” he said. “The Department of Transportation cannot be the cash cow.”

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Wednesday that he changed his position in support of an underground station after he spoke with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

“He made a very compelling case, at least to me anyway, about the additional cost of the underground station to the tune of three or $400 million,” he said.

The board agreed to advance the proposal and help develop a memorandum of understanding in the next seven to 10 days, to be presented for consideration at its August 3 meeting.

Thomas Howell Jr. contributed to this report.

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