Loudoun County Supervisors have voted to remain in the Dulles rail project, ending months of debate and uncertainty about whether the county would keep its commitment to the Silver Line.
Lawmakers approved the project, which requires a $270 million investment by Loudoun, by a narrow margin of 5-4. Had Loudoun County opted out, the project would have been delayed by at least 18 months. The remaining stakeholders would have been left to redesign the proposed route in order to eventually connect the Silver Line to the airport but no further into the county, where two Metro stops were planned.
"I'm relieved. It’s a big day for Loudoun. It’s a big day for my constituents," said Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), whose district will be the location of the last of 11 stops once the Silver Line is completed in 2018.
Special districts are the difference
It was unclear whether the county would opt in until last Friday when Supervisor Ken Reid changed his position after the board decided to create special tax districts around the future Metro stops west of the airport. His support was decisive in forging a majority in favor of Metro rail to Dulles.
"I didn’t change my mind," Reid said. "What happened was that we did a motion for the tax district, so I didn’t change my mind. The tax district takes the risk off the county’s taxpayers."
In the special districts, commercial properties will be taxed at a high rate, sparing residential properties, because they stand to benefit the most from the presence of Metro. But supervisors who opposed “opting in” argued the tax revenue projections are flimsy.
"Everything I have looked at… really turns my stomach. There are so many aspects of [this project] that are not going to help the county. In fact, if you list the pros and list the cons, the cons far outweigh the pros at this time," said Supervisor Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge), who joined Supervisors Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin), Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian), and Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) in voting against the county’s participation.
The months of contentious political debate did not reflect public opinion. While the county supervisors battled (and a vocal minority pressured elected officials to opt out), public opinion polls showed overwhelming support for bringing Metro to Loudoun.
Moving forward with Phase 2
The agency running the project, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, may now proceed with seeking bids from contractors.
"We’ve worked very closely with Loudoun to give them the information they needed to make this important decision and we are very happy that they are going to be a partner with us and Fairfax to move this important project forward," said Patrick Nowakowski, who runs the rail project for MWAA. "In the next few weeks we will initiate the procurement process to hire a firm to design and build this project for us."
MWAA will also begin setting the higher toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road, which are expected to finance 75 percent of Phase 2’s costs. Starting next year tolls are projected to increase to $9 round trip for a full toll.
"This is the way the [funding partners] came up with up to make this project and we are just trying to be good stewards of the public money and deliver the project as inexpensively as we can," said Nowakowski.
There is no federal money involved in Phase 2 of the Silver Line (Phase 1 had $900 million federal dollars). The plan did not meet federal criteria for ridership and population density, so the financing burden fell further on users of the Dulles Toll Road, who will be faced with significantly higher tolls without access to Metro until 2018, when the Silver Line is supposed to be finished.