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Posted at 8:33 PM ET, 02/20/2011

Another 'railroad to ruin'

By Ronald K. Henry, Vienna

Thank you for the thoughtful and powerful Feb. 17 editorial "A railroad to ruin," about the dangers of wasting scarce funds on rail projects that need subsidies to get built, subsidies to operate and subsidies to maintain - forever. Please now take a close look at the hugely wasteful Metro Silver Line project in Northern Virginia and apply the same analysis in your consideration of future news articles and editorials on the topic.

Each new revelation about the Silver Line shows it to be worse and worse. Cost estimates continue to rise for Phase I, and there is still no serious estimate for Phase II. Estimates of new riders continue to decline, and by now no one should be operating under any illusions that it will ever come close to meeting its operating costs, much less recover construction or maintenance costs. All of this is admitted.

The only solution offered by our leaders is to suck billions more dollars out of the pockets of toll- road users. Either motorists should be able to keep the money, or it should at least go to more cost-effective uses.

By Ronald K. Henry, Vienna  | February 20, 2011; 8:33 PM ET
Categories:  Fairfax County, HotTopic, Metro, Virginia, traffic, transportation  
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Wow. Show me any transportation project that is not subsidized by the public. You're not going to find one. The expectation that a rapid transit line should somehow "come close to meeting its operating costs" is ridiculous. One might as well ask just exactly when will the Inter-County Connector begin to pay for itself?

Posted by: alewis4 | February 20, 2011 10:49 PM | Report abuse

Republicans live in a land where they can have public services without paying for them, and highways and airlines operate without subsidy. Must be nice.
The fact that such specious arguments get approving nods (check the Post editorial page any day) rather than scornful laughter represents the massive and ongoing failure of our education system. Nobody reasons logically any more.

Posted by: kstack | February 21, 2011 5:58 AM | Report abuse

The Silver Line was originally conceived to be rail to Dulles Airport that would have been built in the median of the Dulles Toll Road. Had it stayed that way, it could have been running already and cost much less.

But it was hijacked by the Tysons landowners and their elected minions in public office. Moving the rail line through Tysons was designed to give them huge increases in density. Bringing rail to Tysons will not fix the traffic problems and the added density will require massively expensive increases in road capacity. At best, transportation planners estimate 17% of the trips in and out of Tysons will be by rail in 2030.

Posted by: tmtfairfax | February 21, 2011 8:29 AM | Report abuse

From the start, the rail was about adding density and not about transporation. Well, the Tyson's landowners get the density bonus (increase in land value) and the public gets the bill. We have not begun to see the cost....toll road fees increase, real estate tax increase, county services decrease because the county will be strapped because of the cost overruns.
The list of negatives could go on and on. I guess the major question to ask....."Are we having fun, yet?"

Posted by: unhappyvoter | February 21, 2011 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Sticking the Dulles Toll Road users with paying for the costs of this Train To Nowhere (AKA The Silver Line) is the 21st century's equivalent a of a highway robbery.

The waste of $8 billion (or $10, $11, or worse since no one knows the final bill) is simply criminal when early studies showed that a Bus Rapid Transit system could have been built for less than $400 million that would have provided better and more efficient service for the region.

Until we start holding politicians personally accountable for the boondoggles they finance with taxpayer dollars, this sort of pork spending will continue!

Posted by: philrodo | February 21, 2011 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Is this not a good time to return to the traditional US "user pays" tradition for transport services, including roads, railroads and aviation? The Interstate Highway System was financed by means of dedicated taxes on fuel, and other transport services can and should be paid for by users. "Travel vouchers" could be used to help in cases of hardship, e.g. the disabled.

Is it not a scandal that users of the Dulles Toll Road — built for and paid for by those NOT traveling to the airport — should be forced to subsidize a landowners enrichment project masquerading as an airport connection?

Posted by: Gabriel5 | February 21, 2011 11:32 AM | Report abuse

While the justification for public sector investment should always be closely analysed Mr Henry needs to read up on some basic economics. Every commuter who doesn't drive saves ALL the other commuters times and money; economists call it a "positive externality". Republicans tend to be simplistic and ignore this but the final decision needs to weigh the costs and benefits including such externalities.

Posted by: ianstuart | February 21, 2011 12:00 PM | Report abuse

alewis notes: "Wow. Show me any transportation project that is not subsidized by the public."

The problem with our transportation system is that we are re-engineering the city; after things are already built -- and this adds to the costs of doing things. Had we built the Silver Line when the idea was first proposed it would have already paid for itself.

In our system here around Washington most of our costs are "stupidity costs" -- not even opportunity costs or legitimate investment costs. Just look at the original design for the Wilson Bridge, both the first one and the second one. Both were forced into stupidity by short sighted and blind commmissioners and politicians.

alewis: "You're not going to find one. The expectation that a rapid transit line should somehow "come close to meeting its operating costs" is ridiculous."

In a perfect world without stupid people blocking projects until the cost of buying out the land-owners has become prohibitive, there are alternatives that could meet operating costs.

For example a monorail could have been built for a fraction of the cost of the silver line -- if anyone could have been found who would back it other than a few old-timer engineers who knew what they were talking about. But that alternative never even got on the table.

alewis: "One might as well ask just exactly when will the Inter-County Connector begin to pay for itself?"

I suspect that like similar projects undertaken in the 1800's under similar arguments these programs will run at a loss for a long time for the general public. In the case of most of these projects the costs are inflated to pay the officers of the builders, who in turn are expected to give future kickbacks to the politicians, landlords, and investors who really plan on getting incredibly wealthy from them -- just under the table.

You know, socialize the costs and privatize the profits. Business as Usual in the USA.

Posted by: chris_holte | February 21, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

No other part of the Metro system was funded by tolls. The daily commuters who fork over the higher tolls to support the Silver Line must feel like dairy cows, getting milked for every dime.

Ironically, the biggest benefactors will be the developers near the four stops in Tysons. I believe they are paying some additional taxes but the increase in the value of their property will far exceed the incremental tax burden.

So, at the end, the developers have a nice profit and the toll road commuters get squeezed.

Posted by: ViennaDude | February 21, 2011 1:16 PM | Report abuse

alewis4 wrote:

"One might as well ask just exactly when will the Inter-County Connector begin to pay for itself?"

Well, quite possibly not until after 2020. That's assuming sharp increases in toll rate, cheap oil for 30 years, and no prolonged recessions.

And it excludes operating and maintenance.

Posted by: gpsmith1 | February 21, 2011 5:53 PM | Report abuse

It is not just the $7+ billion in Dulles Rail capital costs to consider. MWAA projects Dulles Toll Road tolls will reach or exceed $15 billion or more over the next 50 years to pay for this Tysons landowner boondoggle project.

Tolls are planned by MWAA to reach $1.1 billion annually by 2053 - versus $90 million in 2010 and projected $100 million in 2011. By 2050, we face DTR tolls of $10 to $15 at the main plaza and $7 or more at the ramps after the 2040s, unless we force MWAA to change its financing plans. Since rail ridership demand does not exist to justify building Phase 2, MWAA should be forced to evaluate bus transit options which are far more flexible and will be one tenth the cost of Dulles Rail Phase 2.

MWAA refuses to discuss the huge potential Phase 2 rail financing problems in public. If built, Phase 2 financing will likely lead to a massive bond default within a decade. Now MWAA wants the head of a transit agency to run the Authority. Do they plan to merge MWAA with WMATA?

Most Fairfax County Supervisors want County taxpayers to foot a majority of the $2+ billion cost of planned Tysons Corner infrastructure improvements. This despite potential windfall land value profits of $5 to $10 billion to be realized by Tysons landowners over the next decade.

How about a simple change to the Fairfax County property tax structure? Democrats to pay $10 per $100 of assessed value; Republicans to pay $1 per $100.

And as for the "smart growth" crowd inside the Capital Beltway? Let them pay double or triple to ride the rail to Dulles for which they aren't paying more than a prorata share of our ever increasing federal taxes for capital costs.

WMATA has never divluged what it expects riders to pay to take the Silver Line to Dulles or park at its garages. You can bet your sweet bippy that it won't be as much as MWAA plans to charge DTR users, unless we have a law passed in Virginia that demands equitable treatment of DTR users.

Posted by: Restonian94 | February 21, 2011 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Virtually every worthwhile transportation project creates more land value than the project costs.

So how stupid are we if we fund it from anything OTHER THAN the value it creates?

The mechanism for recycling that publicly-created value already exists in the property tax. Tweak it, as we should have a long time ago, to eliminate the tax on buildings and other improvements to land, and simply tax the land value.

Simply tax the land value. Update the assessments regularly, to account for the effects of such investments on local land values, and collect that value, month in and month out.

And untax productivity. Untax wages. Untax sales. Untax buildings. Watch your economy perk up.

Posted by: LVTfan1 | February 22, 2011 2:01 PM | Report abuse

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