Jul 28, 2014
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Are Buses Still an Alternative to Rail?

Supervisors who question rail project are pondering a question some thought was answered long ago.

Are Buses Still an Alternative to Rail?

In what appears to be preparation for supporting a vote against Loudoun’s participation in phase two of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, if that becomes the most politically tenable thing to do, some members of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors have turned to an alternative that many thought was taken off the table long ago—whether buses are a better alternative, at least for now.

Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) uttered a single word during a Metro work session May 3 that made his views clear after County Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) asked how best to expand transportation capacity with few options to widen pavement in east-west corridors between Loudoun and job centers to the east.

“Buses,” Reid said, with a chuckle.

Several years ago, Reid co-founded notollincrease.org with Chris Walker, a developer who died in 2011. Walker constructed the 1 Dulles Corridor building in Fairfax, which he struggled to lease. The building sits near the Dulles Toll Road/Hunter Mill interchange where planners declined to place a rail station. Walker, at some point, became an opponent of the rail project.

The choice between buses and rail appears to have been made in 2002 when all the local project partners chose rail instead of an alternative proposal for bus rapid transit, commonly referred to as BRT. From that point on, the planning and financing has focused on rail.

It may come as no surprise that County Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large), who has consistently expressed support for rail as long as project managers do not favor unions for the construction contracts, voted in support of rail then.

What may be surprising is that Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling), who often refers to the rail project as a "boondoggle," joined the board on a unanimous July 15, 2002, vote calling for the elimination of BRT as the initial phase of the rail project.

In those days, Frank Wolf (R-10)—who in recent years has been quiet about additional federal funding for the project and has called for a permanent inspector general for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the group tasked with construction—supported BRT. Over the years, reporters and editors in the region have attended numerous editorial meetings where Wolf pushed for bus service as a first step to ultimately bringing rail to .

"Establishing the BRT is critical to helping solve the region’s transportation problems," Wolf said in a statement from his office after an infusion of money to study BRT. "It is a necessary first step in getting rail to Dulles."

Wolf has been the primary go-to person in Congress for funding to study various aspects of the project, including whether BRT would be a better first phase.

But in 2002, after all the local jurisdictions voted for rail instead of BRT, Wolf relented and has since supported the rail project, working to help get the federal government to pitch in a large share for phase one. Wolf told a group of McLean residents in 2006 that the public favored rail, according to a story in the Connection Newspapers, so he would focus on making that project the best it can be.

As someone familiar with Wolf's position recently put it, with respect to BRT, "That ship has sailed."

Wolf also told residents during that 2006 meeting that he favored MWAA’s control over the project.

"MWAA has handled some very big projects on time and on budget," said Wolf told resident, according to the Connection story. "The state has not done that."

Wolf's recent actions calling for an MWAA IG appear to show at least a reconsideration of that stance. He requested an audit of phase two of the project in March.

The congressman, who is up for re-election this year, has not indicated whether he would push for federal money for phase two——but his office has in the past pointed to the previous agreement with the federal government on phase one, which many leaders at the time said would be the only federal funding for the Dulles rail project. Wolf helped secure that federal funding, which amounted to $900 million, or about one-third of phase one's $2.7 billion cost.

Despite those past debates over rail and bus service, the Loudoun board has now launched the conversation anew. There are good questions about whether residents’ commutes via transit will cost more or take more time. But the costs and fees of local transit service, provided by Virginia Regional Transit, are being mixed with costs for commuter service to DC, which the county provides using rider fees, muddying the discussion about the funding needs.

There is a legitimate question about how the county will fund rail and the VRE system. The county’s share of the gas tax revenue currently helps pay for VRE, but has also been eyed to fund rail. Supervisors have planned a work session to discuss funding alternatives, including the establishment of some sort of tax district.

While several supervisors have said they have not made up their minds on rail, their public comments suggest otherwise. At the moment, based on comments, at least five supervisors appear to lean against rail, while at least four appear to support it as long as MWAA does not tie a project labor agreement to construction contracts as a requirement or as a bonus incentive. Clearly, any supervisor could change his or her mind before the county’s July 4 deadline to commit to the project.

But that may depend on the information obtained during a series of work sessions, public outreach sessions and a planned public input session.

Public Outreach

  • May 24, 7 p.m.,  gym, Ashburn
  • May 30, 7 p.m., Freedom High School cafeteria, South Riding
  • May 31, 7 p.m., Cascades Senior Center, Sterling
  • June 2, 10 a.m., Loudoun Valley High School cafeteria, Purcellville

Public Input

  • June 4, 6:30 p.m., boardroom, County Government Building, Leesburg

So, do residents want buses instead of rail? Who will fund the studies and engineering for bus service? How do you feel about rail? Or bus service? Let us know in the comments below and let board members know by contacting them directly.

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