Heavy Rail means heavy tolls

By Thomas L. Cranmer

In the last two weeks the U.S. Department of Transportation drafted a “Memorandum of Agreement” (MOA) for funding the proposed Dulles Rail Phase 2 to serve western Fairfax and eastern Loudon Counties.  The MOA shows a cost now of $3.8 billion.  The Virginia Department of Transportation proposes to provide $150 million spread over five years to help reduce interest charges, but subject to General Assembly approval.  The presentations in the Finance Committee retreats of the VA House of Delegates and Senate Finance Committee during the last two weeks showed the budget deficits for the next two-year budget could be $1 billion or more.

Budgets are about priorities and scarce financial resources.  This comes down to limiting aid to the poor by subsidizing commuters.

This $150 million subsidy does not make sense for the following reasons:

Phase 2 is uneconomic.  The Federal Transit Administration rejected funding Dulles Rail Phase 2 in 2002 due to low forecast  ridership. The rail project service area has less than half the population density stipulated by Federal and State government standards to meet minimum economically viable heavy rail ridership demand.

Costs are too high.  Dulles rail construction costs increased from an initial estimate of $1.9 billion in 2000 to about $7.0 billion.  Phase 2 preliminary engineering and cost estimates are due by Spring 2012. Contract bids are to be requested and awarded in late 2012.  Costs could increase.  Signing the MOA is premature.  Dulles Rail is Fairfax’s and Loudoun’s “Big Dig.”  The Dulles Toll Road is being used to pay most of the cost of Dulles Rail.

Tolls would be outrageously high.  Toll road tolls for maintenance and debt service are projected to be up to $10.70 per car one way in 2018.  Combined with the cost of commuting on the Dulles Greenway the annual charges would be $8,250.  By commuting on the HOT lanes on Route 495 (the Beltway) during rush hour, the total charges would be well over $10,000 per year.

Traffic on free roads will increase greatly.  As Toll Road charges rise, most current toll road users will use other routes.  A study by Cal Poly State University, California, shows when tolls double, then 75% of users are likely to take nearby toll free parallel roads. Traffic congestion will increase on Routes 7, 50, 29 and I-66, plus back roads. These highways would require additional state spending for improvements and maintenance.

The Dulles Toll Road is likely to go bankrupt.  As with the high tolls preceding the Greenway bankruptcy in 1996, most people will revolt and not use the toll road.    The State might bear bankruptcy costs in addition to interest charges.  VA bond ratings could be adversely affected.

It is unreasonable to penalize toll road drivers with paying most of the capital costs of rail.  As presently planned, rail users will  make zero contribution to capital costs.

Bus transit is a far better option than heavy rail for Phase 2.  Buses have a much lower capital cost per person transported.  Bus routing is flexible and expenditure can be varied to meet changes in demand.  There can be multiple pickup points.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) that runs Dulles Rail / Toll Road has failed to make $300+ million in promised improvements to the Dulles Toll Road. No Phase 2 approvals and funding should occur until these improvements are done.

Thomas Cranmer is Dranesville Director of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance and Economist for the Dulles Corridor Users Group.

1 Response to Heavy Rail means heavy tolls

  1. David says:

    But Tom, trains are nice and Loudoun has lots of money.

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