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Airport Authority Proposes Dulles Toll Road Takeover

Wed March 01, 2006 - Southeast Edition
CEG



ARLINGTON, VA (AP) The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) has announced a proposal Dec. 20 to take control of the Dulles Toll Road, saying it would dedicate revenues to road improvements in the Dulles corridor and the planned Metrorail extension to Washington Dulles International Airport.

Controlling every aspect of the highway, from toll collections to maintenance, would assure that it is run efficiently and for the benefit of transportation projects, said James E. Bennett, MWAA chairman.

“It is important that all the revenues of the toll road remain in the corridor and be used for transportation improvements in the public interest, particularly expedited rail to Dulles,” Bennett said.

The 14-mi. road, which connects the airport to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 66, sits on land owned by the MWAA. It has been operated by the Virginia Department of Transportation under a transportation easement since it opened in 1984.

The 17-mi. Airport Access Road runs parallel to the toll road and includes a median with a dedicated rail right of way.

MWAA will ask the state to return control of the highway in exchange for assuming all financial and management responsibilities through an independent arm. The authority also would take over the state’s role in construction and management of the Metrorail extension to Dulles Airport and into Loudoun County. Officials hope to accelerate the project by leveraging toll revenues to borrow money.

“In order to operate Dulles Airport successfully in the future, we believe it is very important that the airport be served by rail,” Bennett said.

VDOT officials had heard of the proposal, but had no comment, said Tamara Neale, a VDOT spokeswoman.

The authority would undertake $3.5 billion in improvements to the highway, including upgrades in toll collection and management, improvements to interchanges and new flyovers from the Dulles Access Road, Bennett said.

The authority also would raise tolls “to keep up with the pace of inflation,” Bennett said.

Metro CEO Richard White praised the proposal, noting that approximately 17 percent of passengers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport — approximately 12,000 people a day — use that Metro station.

“The Airports Authority clearly recognizes the importance of the Rail-to-Dulles project to the airport itself and to the region as a whole,” White said.

One of the biggest supporters of the Dulles rail project, Fairfax County Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, said he wanted to see the project completed quickly and inexpensively, but he’s unsure if MWAA is the best choice to operate the toll road.

“I am, however, concerned at any proposal that would remove the toll revenue from direct public scrutiny,” he said. “MWAA is an extraordinary body that is appointed and accountable only to the Congress virtually.”

A group opposed to using tolls to fund the rail extension said the number of passengers projected to use a proposed Metro station at Dulles would not justify the anticipated $5 billion cost of the project and $111 million in operating subsidies.

Ken Reid of Landowners Opposing Wasteful Expenditures on Rail cited a study by the Airports Authority’s marketing arm that concluded about 1,300 passengers a day would use a Dulles Metro station in 2030, a likely date for its completion. That would account for less than 2 percent of the airport’s daily departures, Reid said.

“Rail to Dulles costs too much and does too little — including for Dulles Airport customers. It won’t alleviate traffic congestion either — except on the Access Road, whose lanes are largely free-flowing,” Reid said.

VDOT is also considering bids from four private developers to operate the toll road, Neale said. All of those proposals involve the developers paying the state about $1 billion to run the toll road for about 50 years. The Airports Authority is asking the state to simply turn over control of the road.

“They’re not a private sector group, and they do own the underlying right of way. I’m not sure what set of rules they would follow, but it’s a different set of circumstances,” Neale said.