These were supposed to have been the best of times for the Dulles Metrorail Silver Line.
With the scheduled summer 2013 start of operations on the $2.7 billlion, 11.6-mile extension to the region’s popular transit system in sight, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) expected to be in the midst of planning a double victory lap of sorts, celebrating successful completion of the long-sought, hard-fought project, and the go-ahead for construction on the 11.5-mile second phase, which extends the line to Dulles Airport and beyond.
But though Phase 1 is on schedule, little else is going right for MWAA these days, putting the project’s future direction literally and figuratively in doubt.
Much like Joe Btfsplk, the “Li’l Abner” comic strip character who always had a dark rain cloud over his head, and was shunned out of fear his bad luck would rub off, MWAA finds itself with few friends in high places, or anywhere else. Virginia’s Transportation Secretary has gone as far as call the Authority a “disaster,” and is considering seizing control of the project.
The Authority’s primary funding partners—Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, and the Commonwealth of Virginia—have threatened to curb their funding commitments or back out entirely due to the 11.5-mile second phase’s steadily increasing price tag (now estimated at $2.7 billion), and MWAA’s preference for the still-to-be-selected design-build contractor to adopt a project labor agreement (PLA).
Motorists who use the MWAA-owned Dulles Toll Road—the Authority’s primary phase 2 funding source—are outraged over the prospect of stair-step toll increases, particularly if the Authority has to make up for those lost contributions.
Also looming over MWAA is a U.S. Transportation Department audit requested by longtime Metro extension supporter Rep Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who has also called for the appointment of an inspector general to monitor the Authority.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood finds himself once again searching for some way to get everyone to play nice, as the truce he negotiated last August unravels.
And that first phase? It could wind up $150 million or more over budget.
Is MWAA truly a “disaster”? It’s hard to say. The Federal Transit Administration and others had understandable reservations about the ability of an agency in the airport business to manage the complexities of a transit project. (Whatever political cajoling was necessary for the project’s $900 million New Starts grant likely pales in comparison to what might be needed to get federal support for phase 2.)
The Authority’s initial insistence of locating its Dulles Airport station underground immediately adjacent to the station did little to win friends and influence people either (the agency subsequently relented and opted for a less costly station to be located approximately 600 feet away).
One might also question MWAA’s wisdom of pushing for a PLA in a fervently right-to-work state, particularly at a time when conservative, “pro-business” majorities dominate politics in Richmond and Loudoun County. (Dulles Transit Partners, the design-build team of Bechtel and URS leading Phase 1, voluntarily signed a PLA after being awarded its $1.6 billion fixed price contract in March 2008.)
On the other hand, potential overruns notwithstanding, the progress on more technically complex Phase 1 would indicate that the Authority is capable of getting things done. Whether that work could have been executed faster/better/cheaper by someone else is debatable, and quite moot at this point.
(Of course, in today’s politically charged environment, longtime opponents of MWAA, and the Silver Line itself, rarely miss an opportunity to call a “told ya so” press conference, regardless of the criticism’s validity.)
Release of the DOT audit’s preliminary findings on May 15 should provide an objective assessment of MWAA’s project management capability, the health of the Silver Line project overall, and prospects for getting Phase 2 underway. Critics and supporters will no doubt find substance for sound bites and Tweets in the report, as the truth has a habit of winding up in the middle.
Yet even if the Authority is vindicated, don’t expect MWAA’s Joe Btfsplk-like cloud to dissipate. With so many bones of contention—real and politically inspired—awaiting resolution, MWAA will likely be heavily scrutinized and readily criticized for some time to come.
As for starting construction on Phase 2 anytime soon, it may be a good idea to take a rain check.