There’s more weighing on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) these days than just the typically ultra-muggy Mid-Atlantic summer heat. Still buffeted by criticism over its April decision to build an underground station at Dulles Airport as part of the $3.5 billion Metrorail extension project, the Authority now faces an audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General.

 The audit, requested in February by longtime project supporter Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va) and House Appropriations Committee member Tom Latham (R-Iowa), will examine how well MWAA policies and procedures comply with a 1986 law that transferred operation of Washington’s two airports to the independent Authority.  

Also to be scrutinized are the accountability and transparency of the activities of MWAA’s Board of Directors, whose 13 members are appointed by the Governors of Virginia and Maryland, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, and the President. 

Skepticism about MWAA’s ability to effectively manage the 23-mile Metrorail extension is nothing new. From the day it took the reins of the project in 2006, the Authority has faced an uphill climb to earn the confidence of federal regulators, local stakeholders, and motorists on the MWAA-owned Dulles Toll Road, the project’s keystone revenue source.

An arduous, eventually successful battle to earn a $900 million federal New Starts grant finally put the 13-mile first phase firmly on track for its scheduled 2013 completion, but any positive momentum has since been lost amid concerns about rising costs of the relatively less-complex Phase 2.

So when MWAA opted for an underground station adjacent to the Dulles terminal, a component of the original 2005 conceptual plan, over a less-expensive above-ground alternative sited approximately 1,000 feet further away, the simmering frustration of Rep. Wolf and MWAA’s local partners boiled over.  

The governments of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, which are on the hook to contribute 16.1 and 4.8 percent of the project’s cost respectively, are considering withdrawing from the project, which MWAA says could jeopardize any hope of getting an additional infusion of federal money for Phase 2. U. S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has stepped in to mediate the disputed issues and hopefully restore a sense of collaboration among the partners, all of whom still agree that the extension is a must for Northern Virginia’s congested transportation network. 

Finding that common ground may not be easy. Despite the region’s relatively healthy economy, local officials claim that spiraling toll road rates are deeply unpopular among  their commuting constituents. And in a recent Washington Post profile, MWAA Board Member and project committee leader Mame Reiley asserted that the needs of travel-weary airport usersa key projected clientele for the extensionjustifies having underground station, and that anything else will compromise its long-term success. 

Such is the situation that awaits former Postmaster General John Potter, who has been named MWAA’s new Executive Director. Yet even that process has had no shortage of troubles, as sharp divisions over the qualifications of former San Francisco transit chief Nathanial Ford short-circuited the first search effort earlier this year.  


Before assuming his new duties until July 18, Potter would be wise to stop by his new office to make sure the air conditioning is working. It’s shaping up to be a long, hot summer in more ways than one.