RTD on DTR
Follow the Rule
Sunday, April 9, 2006
Governor Tim Kaine has said he favors what he calls the "Yellow Pages Rule": If government is providing a service that two or more private companies also offer, then government ought to get out of the business. As is often the case, however, his actions deviate sharply from his stated beliefs.
A salient case in point: the Dulles Toll Road (DTR). The Governor has signed a memorandum of understanding to hand over operation of the DTR to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which operates Dulles International and Reagan National Airports. The MWAA made a bid for the DTR in December, after five private groups had submitted their own proposals and after four of them had cleared the first stages of state review. Despite being a late-comer to the process and despite being an enterprise that knows how to run airports, not roads, the MWAA evidently won the Governor's favor because it controls the land beneath the road and because it commits to completing the Metrorail extension from Falls Church to Loudoun.
Neither of those important considerations should be brushed aside. Nor should they constitute the only factors determining the future of the DTR. If the MWAA had made the best proposal, that would be one thing. But it is not clear whether the MWAA did. An advisory panel that normally would have judged competing private-sector offers never was established, because the MWAA does not fall under the umbrella of Virginia's Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA). Nor have there been public hearings on the MWAA deal, nor legislative scrutiny. (By contrast, House Speaker Bill Howell notes the state cannot hand over even a couple of miles of riparian water rights in the York River without an act of the General Assembly.) The selection of the MWAA seemingly short-circuited more thorough review.
Indications suggest, however, the state could have gotten a better deal. Dulles Express -- a group headed by a developer and part-owner of the Dulles Greenway -- says it could achieve the same goals sought through the MWAA plan and build four express toll lanes valued at $300 million parallel to the DTR, and make a cash-on-the-barrelhead payment of half-a-billion dollars to the Commonwealth for other transportation enhancements. That amounts to $800 million for roads Virginia might walk away from if it carves the MWAA deal in stone. The figure could climb considerably higher if private entities were able to compete for the right to run the DTR. The leasing of roads in other states has reaped astounding sums -- ranging from $2 billion to nearly $4 billion.
To be sure, going the private-enterprise route would involve complications the Virginia Department of Transportation evidently feels unprepared, or ill-equipped, to address -- such as the many layers of environmental and federal review new roads would require, numerous rights-of-way purchases, additional road construction elsewhere to prevent simply moving congestion a few miles down the pike, and so on. What's more, the MWAA shares the state's keen enthusiasm for Metrorail extension, even though the completed rail line ultimately will carry only 48,000 riders -- a small fraction of the corridor's commuters. The MWAA has a long-standing institutional enthusiasm for completing the rail line, and perhaps a practical reason to want it as well: the thousands of airport employees who have to get to Dulles daily to do their jobs.
The Commonwealth has to work with the MWAA because of its property interest in the DTR land, but it should not confuse the MWAA's best interests with the state's. Why should the Commonwealth cast aside both the degree of review normal to the PPTA, and the potentially major improvements to its road network, simply because doing so represents the quicker and easier way? Why should it abandon the Kaine Yellow Pages Rule in a matter so momentous as this?
According to gubernatorial spokesman Delacey Skinner, "The Governor has confidence in the airports authority to do this. That's kind of the end of it."
It shouldn't be.