Greater Greater Washington

McDonnell's roadblocks threaten Silver Line's phase 2

Virginia Governor McDonnell says he fully supports the timely completion of Phase 2 of the Silver Line. Yet his administration's political roadblocks are the biggest threat to the project.


Dulles rail construction. Photo by wfyurasko on Flickr.

In a Washington Post op-ed this weekend, McDonnell wrote, "Unfortunately, the project has been marked by many controversies, ranging from escalated costs, the prospect of soaring tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, legal and labor issues, and the overall accountability, membership and transparency of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA)."

The governor is blowing out of proportion MWAA's governance, legal, and labor issues in a way that unfairly sows doubt about the transit line. Today's interim report by the USDOT's Inspector General found real transparency, spending, and accountability problems at MWAA, but does not find that the agency mismanaged the Silver Line project.

The high tolls are a direct result of the state's failure to invest its own money in this critical transportation project, placing the burden fully and unfairly on northern Virginians. Instead of making the case to the Loudoun Board of Supervisors for the importance of moving forward, McDonnell's administration is making it easier for them to vote no, endangering the whole project.

The Governor just threatened again, via a budget amendment, to withhold the state's meager $150 million contribution to Phase 2 if his new appointees to MWAA were not seated immediately instead of on July 1st. Fortunately, the Virginia House of Delegates voted yesterday to kill the amendment, stopping this latest threat.

One of the main points of disagreement between the McDonnell administration and MWAA has been Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). These have been successful on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Dulles Rail Phase 1 projects.

PLAs are not just about regulating union labor and wage rates for workers. They also require unions to help secure an adequate supply of skilled trades for these massive projects, and to ensure effective coordination among the dozens of trades and subcontractors, both union and non-union, for smoothly functioning, safe, and timely construction. The preference for PLAs in the bidding process seems a reasonable solution. We should move forward with these provisions.

The governor says he is greatly concerned that Virginia doesn't have a majority of seats on the MWAA governing board, which controls Dulles and Reagan National Airports, as well as the Dulles Toll Road and the Silver Line project. But this regional agency has effectively served our region for a long time, completing major and complex expansions of both airports.

It is true, however, MWAA could be much more transparent and accountable, as the IG report notes. The Coalition for Smarter Growth was among the first to raise this issue in 2006 when the Kaine administration proposed handing control of the project over to MWAA. Pressure from the governor, our federal and state legislators, and local elected officials has resulted in key reforms at MWAA. These reforms should continue, but so should the Silver Line.

The attacks on MWAA may have more to do with securing state control of future toll road revenues, for use on road projects like the Northern Virginia Outer Beltway and other rural highways, than about fixing the governance of MWAA.

We can't know that for sure, but it's very plausible given the administration's power grab at the Virginia Port Authority. After reorganizing the port authority's board to ensure control from Richmond, the administration pressed new board members to approve diverting $250 million to Route 460, a rural highway between Hampton Roads and Petersburg that Hampton Roads leaders say is not their top priority. A similar effort by the governor to secure a controlling majority on MWAA in order to do the same thing would not work to the best long-term interests of Northern Virginians.

McDonnell says that he could not even contemplate funding another $300 million for Dulles rail without raiding other projects throughout the state. But is he setting the right priorities? What money might actually be available?

The governor is proposing to spend over $750 million on the Route 460 project. Another $244 million is being earmarked to the controversial Charlottesville western bypass, a road that appears to be ineffective and a waste of money. Millions are going to the Coalfields Expressway to support mountaintop removal in an area with little traffic.

Even accounting for these projects, there may be another $400 million available in the $1.5 billion Public-Private Transportation Act fund. Setting different priorities would free up hundreds of millions more.

It's hard to respond to the governor's argument that Northern Virginia is getting its fair share of the state's funding without seeing the full picture. A clearer accounting of complicated funding flows would be helpful for both the public and legislators. Certainly, making significant investments in addressing the transportation needs of Northern Virginia should be a priority given the importance of the region to the state's economy.

Perhaps symbolic of the administration's priorities, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation David Tyerar made two recent trips from Richmond to Leesburg to appear before the Loudoun Board of Supervisors. He didn't go to make the case for Dulles Rail. Rather, he spoke to promote the Outer Beltway.

The governor and secretary revived planning for the Outer Beltway, added it as a new Corridor of Statewide Significance, and are exploring the route for yet another public-private partnership. Yet this highway would do little to help massively congested corridors like I-66, Route 50, and Route 7. The contrast between the obstacles put before Dulles Rail by the McDonnell administration and their full-court press for the Outer Beltway couldn't be starker.

If the Silver Line's phase 2 fails, it will be on Governor McDonnell's watch. He should lead the way to compromises that will allow the project to move forward, and focus more of the state's transportation resources on this economically critical project.

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Stewart Schwartz is Executive Director and a founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which he built into the leading smart growth organization in the Washington, DC region, addressing the interconnected issues of land use, transportation, urban design, housing, and energy. A retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve service, he earned a BA and JD from the University of Virginia and an MA from Georgetown University. 

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PLAa are about 1 thing and 1 thing only, union power. Union's know they can not compete with merit shops on price or quality so they extort business through PLAs. It is no different than the old Mafia protection racket.

If you want "coordination" or "cooperation" or a "ready supply" of workers, sign a PLA that shuts the merit shops out of the job. In other words, if you don't sign a PLA, we will do everything in our power, legally and illegally, to disrupt the work of merit workers and delay the project. Pure and simple-a shakedown.

Virginia is a right to work state. That means that the people of Virginia has spoken and decided that each worker should have the basic human right of deciding to join, or not join, and organization. PLA's which freeze out non-union workers from taxpayer supported jobs violate this basic principle.

By the way, Metro itself is run as a union, rather than merit shop. Look how well that is working.

by dcrepublican on May 15, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

You really did not provide a strong argument for why this project should be Union labor only. It seems to me that this increases costs and is unfair to everyone who is not part of a union. If this project required only nonunion labor would you feel that is fair? If not, you need to really confront whether you have a strong union bias that is not allowing you to think about this issue in a clear manner. Frankly, I'm a strong supporter of the Silver Line and a strong supporter of the position the Governor of Virginia has taken.

by Jim on May 15, 2012 4:01 pm • linkreport

While I agree with many of the points such as justified tolls to help cover costs & the power grab with the likely intent of sending revenue to unrelated projects, when it comes to the labor issue: I think both sides have been quite stubborn... if anything, I actually side with the McDonnell administration on that one; but I'm also quite fine with MWAA's response of "if you cut our funding we'll jack up tolls to make up for it".

by Bossi on May 15, 2012 4:01 pm • linkreport

if the same PLA agreement are in place for the 1st phase of the silver line, whats the big deal about using the the same PLA agreement for phase 2

by Jerome on May 15, 2012 4:15 pm • linkreport

Again, the governor holds the capital contribution hostage.

Mr. Governor, by threatening to withold the funds all you do is harm the people who live and work in Virginia who use metro as part of their commute. MWAA will lose out building a few stations while people and companies all over northern Va. will have to deal with lost productivity and lower quality of life by having a bad transportation situation made worse by reneging on providing funds that goes for the portions of metro already built and used for 30 years or more.

by X on May 15, 2012 4:19 pm • linkreport

@X yes, but the governor holds the capital contribution hostage for good reason. We can't let this country get driven into the ground by trade unions like what happened in Greece and other parts of Europe.

Just alittle while ago, the U.S. Transportation Inspector General published findings showing widespread misuse of public funds within MWAA. A reference to this study is found in an article called "Audit slams Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for ethics, travel, contracting lapses" This was published in today's Washington Business Journal.

by Jim on May 15, 2012 4:36 pm • linkreport

if the same PLA agreement are in place for the 1st phase of the silver line, whats the big deal about using the the same PLA agreement for phase 2

This is what I don't understand as well. Maybe the topic has been covered in previous posts? IMO, unions are much like the federal gov't nowadays, they're both easy targets. Say that unions are bad for projects like this, people believe it. Say that the federal gov't workers are overpaid and don't do anything, people believe it.

The truth is always in the middle..somewhere lost.

by HogWash on May 15, 2012 4:39 pm • linkreport

Except that isn't a good reason. That contribution goes to WMATA (which sure has its own problems, which would get a heck of a lot worse w/o that contribution) while the governor's beef is with MWAA.

It's also a bad tactic because how does it harm MWAA? All it does is ransom the commutes and productivity of Virginians which is unfortunate to see from someone who positions himself as "pro-business".

by X on May 15, 2012 4:41 pm • linkreport

Maybe is VA didn't want these PLA's and unionized labor, and wanted such a heavy hand in the decision making process, it should have had it's own department of transportation undertake the project... oh wait that's right, they don't have the money to do it. It seems absurd to me that VA expects a $6 billion rail line for $300 million, and also wants full control of how it's constructed.

by Gull on May 15, 2012 4:46 pm • linkreport

I see no reason to have DC or Maryland on the MWAA board. They are Virginia airports, clear and simple.

This multi-region unaccountable quangos need to go. MWAA -- and then WMATA.

by charlie on May 15, 2012 4:53 pm • linkreport

"We can't let this country get driven into the ground by trade unions like what happened in Greece and other parts of Europe. "

but thats not what happened in Greece, and especially not in other parts of europe. In greece they dont pay their taxes, and the influx of german money after the euro was formed was too tempting (and was mostly spent on exports from Germany)

Spain was running a budget surplus before the financial crisis, IIUC.

And Germany, the "Strong" country in europe, also has strong trade unions.

Go fight your fact avoiding ideological wars somewhere else.

by Grrrrrrrr on May 15, 2012 4:58 pm • linkreport

Also why have we started comparing the macroeconomic situations of entire countries to one debate about the merits vs. cost of a transportation project?

by X on May 15, 2012 5:01 pm • linkreport

This multi-region unaccountable quangos need to go. MWAA -- and then WMATA.

And you propose handling regional responsibilities - how, exactly?

by Alex B. on May 15, 2012 5:03 pm • linkreport

WMATA, like MWAA needs to be run by Virginians.

But ones committed to transit.

I would suggest that the Arlington County Board run WMATA.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 15, 2012 5:08 pm • linkreport

We can't let this country get driven into the ground by trade unions like what happened in Greece and other parts of Europe.

Ahh yes unions are the source of the downfall of society!

Back in reality land, the decline of unions in the US over the last 30 years has coincided with a stagnation in pay for all but the top 1%, increases in debt for most people, and the worst economic conditions since the great depression!

by MLD on May 15, 2012 5:10 pm • linkreport

I'm not the least surprised to see Governor McDonnell bowing out of paying for Phase 2. The minute I learned the Silver line was being built in 2 phases, and that the second phase ended seemingly non-sensically just short of the airport it, it was clear to me that Virginia was doing the economically sensical thing. For years this line has been touted as the Dulles metro line .. i.e., a way for people to get from DC (and the core) to out 'other' airport via Metro rail. The fact that Virginia was expected to pay for this line in the first place was surprising. But if Virginia were to pay, it would make sense they'd only do so if it meant getting people to THEIR destinations ... such as Tyson's Corner. So, since VDOT got to define the project, they logically defined it in phases that would guarantee that the federal government would pay up if the final connection to the airport was going to happen. So, am I surprised Va. is bowing out of paying phase 2? No. Should Va. even be expected to pay phase 2? Of course not. This would have all been easier and more transparent if the feds had taken responsibility for paying for this extension in the first place.

by Lance on May 15, 2012 5:45 pm • linkreport

*and that the FIRST phase ended ...

by Lance on May 15, 2012 5:46 pm • linkreport

"The attacks on MWAA may have more to do with securing state control of future toll road revenues, for use on road projects like the Northern Virginia Outer Beltway and other rural highways, than about fixing the governance of MWAA. "

Mr. Schwartz, have you considered the possibility that the rail to Loudoun will not only exacerbate the sprawl-induced congestion along the DTR corridor but also increases the likelihood for the Western Bypass as the Dulles-Rt. 28 nexus forms a major transportation hub for not only commuting but also air freight, rail freight and thousands of tractor-trailers? We in Loudoun thought you were on the side of the folks who resisted the power lines through western Loudoun and for smart TOD communities, but the effort to contain development in Loudoun is not necessarily a guaranteed product of Silver Line to Ashburn. Your best bet is to reduce the demand for transportation by locating the jobs in Loudoun, not facilitating commuting to DC. Once the line is open, you'll probably see a lot of re-zoning applications by developers who intend to cash in on the Metro aura by building in the greenspace between Ashburn and Leesburg, formerly known as the "Transition Zone". Your scenic vistas in Hillsboro and Paris are next. Think Rt. 9 and Rt. 340 connecting to Rt. 234 through Purcellville.

by Rob Jones on May 15, 2012 6:49 pm • linkreport

I can't imagine this guy doing anything reasonable, esp. now that he's an active VP contender.

by Rich on May 15, 2012 9:23 pm • linkreport

Lance,

But if Virginia were to pay, it would make sense they'd only do so if it meant getting people to THEIR destinations ... such as Tyson's Corner.

So, the airport isn't in the state's interest? Northern Virginia's gateway to the rest of the world isn't somehow in the state's economic interest? Then why is McDonnel trying to hard to get extra members on the MWAA Board?

You think Tysons is in the state's interest, but the large office corridor along the Toll Road is not?

What in your view, exactly, would be in the state's interest?

by Alex B. on May 15, 2012 9:44 pm • linkreport

IMHO it is in the state's best interests to build from the core outward, not from the outside in. Now that Arlington is built up and Tyson's is poised, it is time to switch focus over to the south side, the Rt 1 corridor, which today is mostly wasted space.

The key is to keep people moving linearly, not radially. When people are moving linearly, you can keep it moving with buses and HOV. When traffic is moving radially, those techniques are pretty much impossible because you have many-to-many relationships between point of departure and point of destination. We can't undo the past and reverse all of the poorly-placed development that has been done, but we can stop throwing good money after bad.

by movement on May 15, 2012 10:32 pm • linkreport

We can't let this country get driven into the ground by trade unions like what happened in Greece and other parts of Europe.

When I think of countries with strong national trade and construction unions, I think of countries like Germany and Sweden.

Union free states? Mississippi and Alabama.

by Tyro on May 15, 2012 10:39 pm • linkreport

@Alex B. I heard on the radio yesterday that they've done some analysis on the use of the line and found that almost all traffic from the airport would be to DC (and vice versa), and that northern Virginians would continue to drive to the airport. They didn't get into specifics, but at least on the surface that passes the smell test. I mean, when do you ever seen northern Virginians getting out of their cars ... unless they're coming into DC and don't want to deal with our traffic and scarce parking ...

by Lance on May 16, 2012 12:08 am • linkreport

@lance really? All those Arlington people who live walking distance from Metro and take it to work every day are going to get in a car and sit in traffic and pay for parking at Dulles? No way. That doesn't pass the smell test at all.

by egk on May 16, 2012 2:04 am • linkreport

@lance
For years this line has been touted as the Dulles metro line .. i.e., a way for people to get from DC (and the core) to out 'other' airport via Metro rail.

Yes I guess if you ignored the constant discussions about density in Tysons and building Tysons into a transit-accessible urban center then this is what you would think.

But if Virginia were to pay, it would make sense they'd only do so if it meant getting people to THEIR destinations ... such as Tyson's Corner.

Yes, and that is why they are building phase 2, to get people from Loudoun to Tysons Corner. Phase 2 doesn't just go to the airport...

I heard on the radio yesterday that they've done some analysis on the use of the line and found that almost all traffic from the airport would be to DC (and vice versa), and that northern Virginians would continue to drive to the airport.

Clearly there will be some people in NoVA taking rail to the airport, but yes it makes sense that many will drive as the drive is shorter than coming from DC, and unless you already live near a Metro station in VA driving is easier.

But you're still ignoring the point that Phase 2 is not just about connecting to the airport, and even the airport connection is not mostly about travelers, it's about workers.

by MLD on May 16, 2012 8:00 am • linkreport

"We in Loudoun thought you were on the side of the folks who resisted the power lines through western Loudoun and for smart TOD communities, but the effort to contain development in Loudoun is not necessarily a guaranteed product of Silver Line to Ashburn."

Thats absolutely true, but its also true that not building the Loudoun stations does not guarantee that containment either. Whatever incremental effect the Loudoun stations have on sprawl in the transition zone must be weighed against A. The possibility of smart growth right at the Loudoun stations B. The impact of modal shift from auto to transit in Loudoun on the redevelopment of Tysons

"Your best bet is to reduce the demand for transportation by locating the jobs in Loudoun, not facilitating commuting to DC."

A. given that that will likely add to current patterns - with jobs in loudoun mostly locating near dulles, and folks commuting there from across loudoun, including the transition zone, and from PWC, Fauquier, and even points west of Loudoun, I think that is dubious. B.Loudoun Silver line users will probably go to Tysons or North Arlington, more than DC

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 16, 2012 9:26 am • linkreport

This isn't a government issue, so if they don't want to pay, then that's fine. However, I am also fine with $6-7 tolls on the Dulles Toll Road. It's MWAA's project and it's their road. You don't like that, then use the public road.

by Neutrino on May 16, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

@Charlies
I see no reason to have DC or Maryland on the MWAA board. They are Virginia airports, clear and simple.

Maybe if Virginia would like to give Arlington back to DC and stop withdrawing water from Maryland's Potomac River, something can be worked out.

by Jim T on May 16, 2012 11:13 am • linkreport

Re Rob "have you considered the possibility that the rail to Loudoun will not only exacerbate the sprawl-induced congestion along the DTR corridor but also increases the likelihood for the Western Bypass as the Dulles-Rt. 28 nexus forms a major transportation hub for not only commuting but also air freight, rail freight and thousands of tractor-trailers?"

We think Loudoun has a clear choice between a knowledge economy/people and placemaking-focused future tied to the Silver Line and a freight/warehouse future tied to the Outer Beltway. We see the rail and placemaking approach as far better economically and competitively for the county. Yes, we have considered the potential effect of a rail extension on long-distance development and commuting. It can be real. That's why continued focus on maintaining a rural west and rural economy and the lower density transition zone is necessary. These rural areas and their proximity are in themselves a competitive advantage for attracting creative tech employees who appreciate nearby preserved landscapes, active farms and recreational opportunities. Effective land use planning and zoning are critical.

As for adding more jobs, a balance needs to be struck, because they too can prompt more commuting from West Virginia. Focusing those jobs at rail transit and along Route 28 in focused mixed-use communities with high quality of life, while protecting the western areas, is a way to strike a balance.

by Stewart Schwartz on May 16, 2012 11:28 am • linkreport

I'm sorry - the Wilson Bridge had a PLA? Last I checked the mandated PLA was removed from that job and the cost savings were enormous. It went from one bidder to many.

Along the same lines, Phase 1 of Dulles Rail had a voluntary PLA. That is quite a different situation. Nobody has a problem with voluntary PLAs.

What 97% of Virginia's construction workforce does have a problem with is being discriminated against by a PLA preference policy. Good for our Governor for standing up for his own state's workers and taxpayers!

by Hard Hat Mommy on May 16, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

Phase 1 of the Silver Line was bid without a PLA incentive in the RFP. Phase 2 should be bid under the same terms as Phase 1. It isn't reasonable to change the ground rules part way through the project.

The comments about Hampton Roads are mis-leading at best. The top priority for Hampton Roads is another bridge-tunnel -- which can not be built for the money being spent on US-460. There are clear economic reasons for the VPA to upgrade US-460 as that is a current bottleneck for container traffic to/from the port. Clearing the bottleneck will enhance VPA competitiveness compared with other US east coast ports.

by Anonymous Coward on May 16, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

Really - can we stop having these politically motivated attacks on Virgina that are outright lies? The Silver Line is going to be built and yes Virginia taxpayers have a right to have their Right to Work Laws obeyed. It's amazing that a web site called GREATER GREATER WASHINGTON beleives the only way to achieve this is to poison public debate and spread falsehoods about others. Without Virginia there would be no METRO...but a blank check was never in the original 1960's agreements. Do some homework and look it up.

by Pelham1861 on May 16, 2012 3:46 pm • linkreport

The SILVER LINE from today's liberal POLITICO...but at least a greater attempt at accuracy: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0512/76347.html

by Pelham1861 on May 16, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

politico isnt liberal

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 16, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

I HATE UNIONS! BLARRAGAHARARGH!

by Matthew B on May 16, 2012 4:03 pm • linkreport

Virginia taxpayers have a right to have their Right to Work Laws obeyed.

If the purpose of the law is to benefit taxpayers by paying workers less, why are you calling it a "right to work" law? The purpose of the law, as you implicitly admit here, is to deprive workers of the right to organize, engage in collective bargaining, and enforce their collective bargaining agreements. That is one of the most fundamental human rights in an industrial society, although a right that American law does a very poor job of protecting.

The name "right to work" was made up to conceal the purpose of the law. If its sponsors really cared about the right to work, they would support the kind of laws other industrial countries have, which ensure that workers have due process before being fired from a job whether they belong to a union or not.

by Ben Ross on May 16, 2012 4:10 pm • linkreport

@ Jerome and Hogwash--

The theory behind the PLA for phase one was that it would attract better pricing and talent in a hot construction market. Well,at least the non-conspiracy theory. In the current construction market, a PLA is not necessary to attract top talent. That is, if you believe the most plausible, non-political theory.

Notice how all the comments ignore the key findings of the IG report.

by WRD on May 17, 2012 12:02 am • linkreport

Folks,I'm not an expert on PLA's, but even former Cong. Davis notes in the Politico story, http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0512/76347.html, that a PLA is likely because of the size of the project. Columnist Robert McCartney has recommended that MWAA drop the preference to move forward, and at this point that may be what should happen.

But I stand by my contention of the contrast between the McDonnell administration's negative stance on Dulles Rail and their full court press, albeit under the radar screen, for the Outer Beltway (more to follow on this).

When the state routinely covers 100% of a highway project with state and federal funds and no local match, why is the state only putting in $150 million from its Transportation Trust Fund into the $2.8 billion Phase 2? The Silver Line is not just a "local project" as Sec Connaughton says in the Politico article but a project with statewide implications because it will support continued economic growth in the state's economic engine, while at the same time supporting more efficient patterns of development and offering an alternative to sitting in traffic.

by Stewart Schwartz on May 17, 2012 6:37 am • linkreport

FEDS discover illegal activity & waste on METRO Silver Line. Thank goodness Virginia is balking at paying these alleged criminals. time to clean house: http://washingtonexaminer.com/local/transportation/2012/05/dulles-rail-board-defends-its-performance/619106

by Pelham1861 on May 17, 2012 8:33 am • linkreport

Gov. McDonnell's transportation priorities can be described succinctly with Ambrose Bierce's description of politics: "The conduct of public affairs for private advantage." With the

1. ramming through of the CSS for the outer beltway route ("river to river" was the description provided by its advocates at the Commonwealth Transportation Board meeting last year) and
2. the subsequent note in the Wall Street Journal of a significant land-buy along the route by Greenvest, the development company, to
3. the long list of large development industry campaign contributions to the Loudoun Board of Supervisors Republican candidates to get them in their first acts as a board to relinquish local control over land use/transportation and
4. whatever pressure was put on the Prince William Senator who abandoned his party to vote with the land developers on McDonnell's transportation budget,

...the fix seems to be in--not for long-range thoughtful planning that will promote future prosperity-- but for "the conduct of public affairs for private prosperity."

And please, let us abandon the fiction of American Unions as precipitating a spiral into Grecian anything. "Right to work" simply means expanded ability to suppress the wages of skilled workers (the middle class). This is something that at least two Loudoun Supervisors (Geary Higgins and Matt Letourneau) have as professional goals.

by Martha Polkey on May 17, 2012 7:52 pm • linkreport

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