- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is facing mounting pressure to revisit its decision in favor of an underground Metro station at Washington Dulles International Airport, after U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued cost-cutting recommendations that include building a cheaper above-ground alternative.

Mr. LaHood’s recommendation takes the side of Fairfax and Loudoun counties in an ongoing dispute over where to build the new Dulles Metrorail station. Concerned about paying their own share of the project, county officials want the MWAA to opt for an above-ground station that will cost $300 million less than the below-ground station the board approved in April.

Building a pricier station is only part of the problem. Originally estimated at a cost of $2.5 billion, the project’s second phase is now expected to reach $3.8 billion. In a July 3 memo, Mr. LaHood suggested ways to pull the cost back to $2.7 billion - including moving the proposed station above ground.

It’s unclear whether the MWAA will cave to federal pressure. Since approving the underground station in April, the board has stood firm against opposition from state and local officials, including Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton and Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Early last month, Mr. LaHood met with the MWAA and government officials and directed them to spend 30 days seeking a compromise.

“It’s not over till it’s over, and we’re not there yet,” said Thomas M. Davis III, one of two MWAA board members to vote against the underground station. Mr. Davis said the board is seeking more “clarifications” on Mr. LaHood’s plan, and he doesn’t expect the board to announce a decision until July 20, when members will meet with the secretary again.

“It will be a healthy and robust discussion,” Mr. Davis said. “I’m hopeful the authority will end up doing the right thing at the end of the day.”

The MWAA is also being pressured by D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who said Wednesday he now supports building an above-ground station. Mr. Gray said he’s asking his representatives on the MWAA board to change their vote.

In addition to backing the less-expensive station, Mr. LaHood proposed a number of other project modifications as part of his plan to chop $1.1 billion off the cost of phase two. He suggested reducing the size of the train yard, constructing structures with steel instead of concrete, building a smaller canopy over the station and having localities donate land.

Mr. LaHood also suggested that Fairfax and Loudoun assume a new funding responsibility by paying for five parking garages at stations located within their jurisdictions. Together, the modifications would transfer $371.3 million of the cost to the counties.

Under the current funding agreement, Fairfax must contribute 16 percent of the costs, while Loudoun is responsible for 5 percent and the MWAA would provide 4 percent. The rest would be funded with revenue from the Dulles Toll Road.

County officials said they were open to the idea - but only if the MWAA was willing to do its part by giving up the underground station.

“We’re looking for opportunities to reduce the cost for phase two, but it’s not so MWAA can build their underground station,” Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, told The Washington Times. “They, too, need to contribute in a way that helps bring down the cost.”

Ms. Bulova, a Democrat, cited the possibility of obtaining federal loans through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), proposed by Mr. LaHood. Because Fairfax and Loudoun have better credit ratings than the MWAA, Mr. LaHood said it would be easier to filter direct TIFIA funds through the counties.

Loudoun County Chairman Scott York was less enthusiastic, saying the county can’t afford to pay for the garages without help. He suggested a scenario in which a private developer would construct the garages and collect some of the revenue, and the state would help out by backing loans.

“We just don’t have the capacity to guarantee the construction of the garages,” Mr. York told The Times. “Having said that, we are talking with the state right now.”

In a Wednesday meeting, several members of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors also expressed concern over paying for the garages while seeming supportive of the overall plan. The Fairfax county board will meet Tuesday to discuss Mr. LaHood’s memo.

But the decision hinges on the MWAA, since the board is responsible for overseeing the entire extension project.

“I hope MWAA will start taking this stuff seriously and understand why the funding partners are where they are and understand the aerial station is not inconvenient to passengers,” said Mr. York, an independent. “Most importantly, Loudoun and Fairfax County are not cash cows for MWAA.”

• Paige Winfield Cunningham can be reached at pcunningham@washingtontimes.com.

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