First Train to Dulles to be Two Years Late

Guest commentary by Daniel Davies and David LaRock

The evidence of poor management by the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority (MWAA) grows by the day. Elected officials continue to scold them, even for misdeeds that those same officials were alerted to but chose to ignore.

But take heart. There is a simple standard of performance this seemingly unaccountable bunch should conform to. According to the 2006 Dulles Toll Road Permit and Operating Agreement, MWAA is required to make “best efforts” to complete the project by Dec. 31, 2015.  How do you measure best efforts? Schedule would be a good place to start; and in that area, MWAA’s report card is looking pretty bad, and their excuse for long delays might as well be to blame the family dog for eating the schedule.

Recently, in a letter dated August 3, MWAA President and CEO Jack Potter “notified” Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaugnton that MWAA wants an additional two-year extension of their deadline to complete the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, commonly known as the Silver Line. VDOT already granted MWAA a similar one-year extension in 2009.

Cost reductions?

In the letter to VDOT, Potter claimed that “This extension is largely due to delays associated with the efforts by project partners to achieve a substantial reduction in the construction costs of Phase 2.”  Is MWAA delivering their “best efforts”, or wasting time and money? Cost has not gone down as a result of MWAA’s efforts. In fact there is a very disturbing pattern of increases, which may signal what is ahead for Phase 2 if MWAA is left in charge.

Potter claims “…substantial reduction in the construction costs of Phase 2.” When the project’s final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was completed in 2004, the cost of Phase 2 was estimated at $2 billion. MWAA took over the Rail project in 2007. As of March 2009, Phase 2 cost was estimated to be up $500 million, to $2.5 billion. MWAA’s current Phase 2 cost estimate is $2.7 billion.

Phase 1 is nearing completion and actual costs went from $1.5 billion in 2004 to $2.9 billion today and are still climbing. If MWAA’s management of Phase 2 causes costs to double as Phase 1 did, we’re looking at a Phase 2 price tag of $4 billion. Tolls could be the backstop if this continues.

These massive cost increases are a fact, yet MWAA claims “substantial reductions.” That begs the question of whether VDOT is even paying attention to what is going on.

MWAA’s claimed savings include tentatively passing off construction of five parking garages and the Rt. 28 station to Fairfax and Loudoun Counties ($404 million) and relocation of the Dulles Airport station ($600 million). This did lower the cost estimate from a bloated early-2011 estimate of $3.8 billion, but those reductions may soon be erased when and if the Rt. 28 station and garages find their way back into the project budget, bumping Phase 2 costs back to $3.1 billion

Little to do

MWAA also had little to do with the Dulles Station’s reduced costs. The MWAA Board’s April 6, 2011 insistence on the underground station added $330 million in costs and almost scuttled the entire project, until U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood stepped in to force them to go with the more affordable above-ground option. MWAA clearly favored spending more, not saving.

If LaHood hadn’t laid down the law, the project would still include $734 million in higher costs. Clearly, MWAA has failed to deliver the project on time, as required in the Dulles Toll Road Permit and Operating Agreement and claims of cost cutting do not add up.

Don’t forget, it was the MWAA Board who voted to institute a 10% scoring preference for union labor for the Phase 2 design-build contract, padding costs by $270-310 million. Stalling the project for months while insisting on a $300 million union perk should not be accepted as “best efforts.”

Potter’s cost cutting excuses are beyond ridiculous. MWAA’s long and well-documented pattern of corruption and extreme waste do not reflect “best efforts” and there is no reason to expect that will change.

This April, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton stated, “We are actively evaluating whether we can take the project over… These guys [MWAA] are a disaster. … We’re at the point, quite honestly, where we think we could potentially do it better, cheaper, faster.”

It is time for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Sec. Connaughton to show us their “best efforts” by stepping in on behalf of the commuters of Northern Virginia and tell MWAA their excuses won’t cut it. The MWAA spending binge should not be extended.

Daniel Davies and David LaRock are residents of Loudoun County, VA and members of www.NoTOLLincrease.org

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About the Author

Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.

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