- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2012

RICHMOND — Virginia’s two-year, $85 billion spending plan is finally in a conference committee, but funding for the Dulles Metrorail is emerging as a key sticking point that could drag out the already-extended session even further.

As expected, the Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday rejected amendments the Senate approved Monday, which include $300 million in bonds to help control the rising costs of tolls on the Dulles Toll Road that are being used to pay for the second phase of the 23-mile extension of Metrorail to Washington Dulles International Airport.

That puts the bill into a conference committee of six members from each chamber. One of the 12 is Sen. Janet D. Howell, Fairfax Democrat, who said that in her fifth year as a conferee, this is the closest she has seen the two chambers on the budget.

“I am hopeful that we can resolve these issues expeditiously,” she said. “But there are some we’re not prepared to compromise very much on. Some not at all.”

One issue that could defy compromise is the money for the toll roads, for which Ms. Howell and Sen. Mark R. Herring, Loudoun Democrat, fought to secure.

“I am quite determined that we must have this money,” she said. “We’ll see in conference what happens, but I know that those of us involved are determined to have funding for Phase 2.”

Tolls are currently $1.25 at the main toll plaza and 75 cents at the on/off ramps. According to the most recent estimates from the consulting firm CDM Smith, tolls for a full trip would reach $6.75 by 2020 and $10.75 by 2030.

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, said that even though Northern Virginia supplies about a third of the state’s sales tax and gas tax revenue, just 7 percent of the money for the more than 900 transportation projects advanced by Gov. Bob McDonnell’s $3 billion transportation plan last year went to projects in the Northern Virginia Transportation District.

“I’ve been here 37 years,” he said. “I have never once ever heard anybody say, ‘Let’s vote for this bill because it’ll help poor Fairfax out,’ OK? Never once. I mean, everybody’s got a hard-luck story, but we’re the ones with the traffic jam and we’re the ones paying for the state. To me, quite frankly, this is a drop in the bucket compared to what we send here.”

But in addition to the $150 million the state has already pledged for Phase 2 of the rail-to-Dulles project, House Speaker William J. Howell said Virginia has already given the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority an untold amount of money in the way of toll revenue on the Dulles Toll Road.

In 2006, then-Gov. Tim Kaine, with the support of a bipartisan group of state lawmakers that included then-Sen. George Allen, authorized a transfer of control of the toll road and management of the Rail-to-Dulles project to the airports authority.

The reasoning, at the time, was that the authority would provide for a better-managed, more cost-effective project. But since then, it has undergone a series of stops, starts and cost overruns, at several points teetering on the edge of collapse. The authority also drew ire last year when it voted to build a more-expensive underground station at Dulles before reversing itself amid outcry from state, local and elected officials. The move would have added an extra $300 million onto Phase 2 of the project, now estimated to cost between $2.7 billion and $2.8 billion.

But Mr. Howell, Stafford Republican, said the state had four valid, unsolicited offers to transfer the authority of the road to other bodies through the state’s Public-Private Transportation Act. Two of the offers would have provided more than $1 billion in cash for improvements on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 66.

“We have given them a ton of money,” he said of the airports authority. “I think the governor’s committed to $150 million.”

The airports authority released its preliminary engineering cost of $2.7 billion for Phase 2 on March 6, triggering a 90-day review period in which Fairfax and Loudoun counties must decide whether they want to continue as partners in the project. Loudoun County has been granted a 30-day extension to remain a funding partner, which would come with it a price tag of about $260 million.

The current funding formula for the 11.4-mile stretch of rail from Wiehle Avenue in Fairfax County through the airport into Loudoun has toll road revenue paying for 75 percent of Phase 2, with Fairfax paying 16.1 percent, Loudoun 4.8 percent, and the airports authority 4.1 percent.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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