By an 11 to 1 vote, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority removed a major obstacle to the start of construction of Phase 2 of the Silver Line rail project to Dulles International Airport and beyond into Loudoun County. The MWAA board of directors dropped a pro-labor provision that would have offered bidding contractors a significant bonus for choosing union construction workers in a PLA, or project labor agreement.
The decision by the MWAA board to surrender to political pressure from the McDonnell administration, Republican lawmakers who control Virginia's legislature and the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, marked an end to months of wrangling over the PLA. Virginia and Loudoun officials were threatening to pull out of Phase 2 unless the PLA were dropped. They claim not to oppose PLAs, but only the preference given to contractors who would choose union labor. Virginia Republicans have said the voluntary PLA arrangement pushed by MWAA violated the Commonwealth's right-to-work laws.
Virginia's Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton confirmed his state will participate in the project now that the PLA is dead.
"We've always been in," Connaughton says. "The question has always been just how much we can be in due to some of the things that the MWAA board was attempting to put in the contract." Virginia will contribute $150 million to the $2.7 billion Phase 2 rail link.
MWAA board members expressed reluctance when voting to kill the PLA, claiming that efforts to appease Virginia were rejected for political reasons. The board had little choice but to drop the controversial provision. A withdrawal by Virginia or Loudoun County would delay the project at least 18 months, according to MWAA CEO Jack Potter.
"The project labor agreement has saved us million of dollars on Phase 1," says MWAA chairman Michael Curto, referring to the contractor Bechtel's decision to enter into a PLA. "The PLA has played a significant role in keeping us on schedule in Phase 1, and I think it has been instrumental in our stellar safety record."
Politics killed the PLA
Last November MWAA adopted a mandatory project labor agreement. "The language we adopted was given to us by the Commonwealth," Curto says. "In fact, it was provided to us in a letter from the attorney general's office in which they... stated that this language was compliant with Virginia's right-to-work laws."
Soon after, however, Republicans who had gained control of the Virginia legislature approved a bill that precluded the Commonwealth from providing contributions to a public works project with a mandatory PLA. Over the next six months MWAA would change its position twice, finally settling on the voluntary PLA preference, which was ultimately defeated in the 11 to 1 vote.
"We find ourselves at a crossroads," says Curto moments before casting his vote to kill the PLA. "This often happens when economics confronts the politics. I think it is important we send a signal to Loudoun County that we really wish to encourage their participation. It's critical to the success of the project."
MWAA board member Bob Brown cast the only vote to uphold the PLA, saying that Virginia could not be trusted to stay onboard the Silver Line anyway.
"I don't find that believable," Brown says. "I would find believable a grant agreement signed by the Commonwealth and the Airports Authority to provide these funds. I don't see any reason to believe a man who's been governor three years is suddenly going to change his mind."
Now it's up to Loudoun
The death of the project labor agreement preference does not guarantee Loudoun County's participation in the Silver Line. The Board of Supervisors has until July 4 to opt in, but board members are divided over debt structure and financing options.
On Wednesday, the board of supervisors weighed a variety of funding options, which include setting up special tax districts near the future rail line. Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) has said it may be possible to fund the project without raising taxes.
There are also questions concerning the economic benefits of building two Metro stops west of Dulles Airport. A well-organized grassroots opposition is lobbying the board of supervisors to consider economic studies that predict the benefits will be minimal to Loudoun's economic future at a great cost to the county's coffers and Dulles Toll Road users.
Alfred Van Huyck, a former Loudoun county planning commission member, says the financing arrangements have changed too dramatically since the original plan to make rail-to-Loudoun feasible.
"Metro rail does not generate economic activity," he says. "What it does is locate it and focus it. So Loudoun County essentially will get exactly the same amount of economic development whether it has metro rail or not."
The original funding arrangement called for the federal government to provide 50 percent ($900 million) of Phase 1's finances, the state of Virginia 25 percent and the remaining 25 percent to be divided between Fairfax and Loudoun Counties. There was never any federal funding planned for Phase 2 because that portion of the rail link failed to meet federal ridership criteria. The entire project had to be split into two phases so there could be any federal dollars at all. With Virginia committed to contribute what critics have called a paltry sum of $150 million, the onus to fund Metro rail-to-Dulles fell on the drivers of the Dulles Toll Road.
Tolls expected to rise significantly
While the PLA controversy has been settled, a range of outstanding issues remain to be resolved before anyone can guarantee a successful start to a project that will dramatically change the face of the region.
In September, MWAA will begin setting the new rates for the Dulles Toll Road. In an email to WAMU.org, Terry Maynard, a member of the Reston Citizens Association, which represents 58,000 residents in Fairfax County, said tolls will skyrocket over the next several decades.
Virginia's $150 million commitment "will allow toll rates to edge up to $4.50 full toll over three years rather than double to that level next year," Maynard said.
"If Virginia follows through with additional incremental financing as many have promised... the tolls will still reach $18.75 (one-way full toll) by mid-century, but they would edge up year-to-year rather than in $2 or larger increments every five years," Maynard added.
[Music: "A to B" by The Futureheads from The Futureheads / "Long Train Runnin'" by A Bluegrass Tribute from Pickin' On The Doobie Brothers]