The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) seems to think the people of the region and their elected officials have either short or poor memories. MWAA’s attempt to shift the $300 million cost of an underground rail station at Washington Dulles International Airport to Fairfax and Loudoun Counties is a classic bait and switch. A little history is in order.
Rail to Dulles has been on planning maps in the metropolitan area for more than 50 years – virtually since Dulles airport was first conceived. But until the early 1990’s, the idea was just that – rail to Dulles. When federal funds and planning studies became a reality, MWAA had a different idea. Rail systems have two types of stations, MWAA President and CEO James A. Wilding told the Fairfax County Dulles Corridor Task Force in 1993. “Collector stations” collect passengers for rail, while “destination stations” are located at places to which people ride. Dulles should be a destination, not a collector, Wilding argued. MWAA wants people going to the airport to get on planes, not trains, and rather than using existing parking or building new garages and lots for rail passengers at Dulles, the rail line should be extended into Loudoun County, were collector parking for commuters could and should be built. Dulles would soon undergo an extensive renovation and expansion, the design of which could accommodate an underground station, permitting the convenient transfer of passengers between trains and planes. By making a decision to extend rail beyond the airport and into Loudoun County, MWAA’s architects and engineers could program the underground station into the renovation and expansion plans. Given the benefit to the airport, MWAA would pick up the cost, Wilding said at the time.
The Fairfax County Dulles Corridor Task Force was established as a result of a provision in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, passed by Congress in 1991, which provided $6 million for completion of “alternatives analysis and preliminary engineering for a rail corridor from the West Falls Church Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority rail station to Dulles International Airport“ (emphasis added).
MWAA’s proposal made sense. It was adopted by various governmental authorities and study teams. Every planning study and exercise since 1994, including the alignment of the rail line, the land use and density goals, and the location of stations, reflected MWAA’s desire to extend the line into Loudoun and truly be a destination rather than collector.
A resolution adopted in 1992 by Virginia’s transportation oversight body, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB), directed that a “fair and equitable financial plan for rail transit in the Corridor shall be developed” to include “financial support from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority”. MWAA’s financial contributions should be “through the dedication of revenue raised through passenger facility charges” the CTB resolution said. The passenger facility charge is an airline ticket tax or federal fee assessed on every enplaned passenger at commercial airports. An airport can use these fees to fund FAA-approved projects to improve the operation of the airport.
As a member of the Fairfax County Dulles Corridor Task Force and the sponsor and manager of the motions before the Fairfax County Planning Commission endorsing the alternatives analysis, it is appalling that MWAA would abandon its commitment after all these years. An underground rail station, providing a convenient and efficient intermodal transfer of passengers between rail and airlines, makes sense. After baiting the counties, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the US Department of Transportation into extending the rail line beyond the airport into Loudoun County nearly 20 years ago, MWAA should honor the financial commitment made to me and others and fund the underground station, rather than pursuing its current switch.