Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th) today introduced legislation to allow members of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to be replaced more easily and to give the Commonwealth of Virginia greater representation on the panel, now a 13-member regional board.
Wolf also wants to make sure that board members leave when their terms expire instead of the present practice of serving until a replacement is appointed.
Wolf has been growing increasingly concerned by recent actions of the MWAA board and believes changes to the 1986 law creating the authority should be made immediately. He has been extremely critical of the board’s decision to build an underground station at Dulles airport as part of Phase 2 of the Dulles Metrorail expansion project. The three local partners – the Commonwealth of Virginia, Fairfax County and Loudoun County – in the project also have been very vocal in opposition to plans for an underground station.
Wolf’s bill would allow the governors of Virginia and Maryland, the mayor of the District of Columbia and the president to remove board members even if appointed by their predecessor. The bill also would expand the board and increase Virginia’s representation from five to nine members. Maryland would continue to have two members and the District of Columbia three. There are also three presidential appointees.
Wolf, who has long been a champion for Dulles and Reagan National airports, said he believes that continued success of the airports is now “threatened by a board of directors that has lost sight of its primary mission of serving airport passengers and residents of the surrounding communities.”
He also is concerned about rising costs for Phase 2 of the rail project and what that will mean for tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, a major source of funding for the second half of the project.
“With both airports located in Virginia and with northern Virginia residents and local governments providing a lion’s share of the revenue for the Dulles rail project, it is only fair that the majority of the board be Virginians,” Wolf said.
Wolf earlier this year asked the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation to audit the Dulles Metrorail project and the U.S Government Accountability Office to conduct a comprehensive review of MWAA’s operations. The audit by the inspector general is expected to get under way soon.
Below is Wolf’s statement accompanying the introduction of the bill:
“I have been one of the strongest supporters of Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as well as the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Extension project. I was one of the original sponsors of the 1986 legislation that transferred from the federal government the operations of Dulles and Reagan. I worked with former Senators John Warner and Paul Trible, former Governor Linwood Holton, and former Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole to enact that important law that created the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA). For nearly 25 years MWAA has operated effectively, governed by board members who were pillars of the community and understood the importance of the success of both Dulles and Reagan.
“After the airports authority was created, both Reagan and Dulles prospered. In the past 25 years, Dulles has become the economic engine for not only northern Virginia, but the entire Commonwealth. Without a successful international airport drawing global traffic and myriad businesses, the region would not be as nearly as successful as it is today. Metrorail access to the airport and fast-growing Loudoun County will attract more businesses, create new jobs and ease congestion on area roadways. Dulles Rail being completed on time and at or under original cost estimates is key to many more decades of success.
“While I have been extremely pleased observing MWAA’s achievements over the past two decades, I believe continued success is now threatened by a board of directors that has lost sight of its primary mission of serving airport passengers and residents of the surrounding communities. For many years MWAA was run by competent and dedicated professionals such as Jim Wilding and Jim Bennett. As current CEO Lynn Hampton prepares to retire, the search process for her replacement conducted by the current board of directors has been a study in poor management and political horse trading. When the board voted to advance the nomination of Nathaniel Ford, the deciding vote was cast by proxy by a then board member who was under house arrest in the Ivory Coast.
“This problem arose because under the current law, board members serve until their replacement is confirmed. While this may have worked in the past, in my opinion the law is being abused to keep political favorites in office, even if their service is suspect. The leadership void at MWAA also is reflected in the planning for Phase 2 of Dulles Rail. Under the current board, costs have greatly exceeded original estimates, with more likely to come with the board’s April 6 decision to build an underground station at Dulles Airport.
“Because of these concerns about the direction of MWAA today, I am introducing legislation to make changes to the 1986 law that established the regional operating authority for Dulles and Reagan National airports. This legislation will amend the original statute to give Virginia a majority on the MWAA Board of Directors by increasing the number of Commonwealth appointees from five to nine. With both airports located in Virginia and with northern Virginia residents and local governments providing the lion’s share of the revenue for the Dulles Rail project, it is only fair that the majority of the board be Virginians. The bill will also prevent board members from serving past the end of their appointment, and will establish that board members can be replaced at any time by the respective executives who appoint the board: the governors of Virginia and Maryland, the mayor of the District of Columbia or the president of the United States. I believe these changes are critical if we are to ensure that MWAA will once again function as originally intended and in the best interests of northern Virginia. Phase 2 will require nothing less than the most qualified board possible to be a success.
“It is imperative that these changes to the original law be enacted quickly, and I hope that the committee of jurisdiction will expedite review of the legislation. If the current leadership is allowed to stay in place, it will very likely continue to make decisions that add to the cost of Phase 2 and further jeopardize not only MWAA’s bond rating, but the success of both airports under their control. The respective executives simply must have the ability to appoint new board members as soon as possible to prevent the current board from turning Dulles Rail into a failed project.
“My primary interest is to see the project completed on time and at or under budget and I believe the board’s decision to opt for an underground station at Dulles Airport could be disastrous. Since the announcement, Fairfax and Loudoun counties have indicated that they will not assume the extra costs of the underground station. If the local governments withdraw Phase 2 funding, the project will be in serious jeopardy.
“The underground station also is opposed by nearly every elected official representing northern Virginia residents, including the Fairfax and Loudoun boards of supervisors, the Herndon Town Council, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton and Governor Bob McDonnell. Independent groups such as the Washington Airports Task Force, Dulles Corridor Rail Association, the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and AAA Mid-Atlantic have all spoken out against the underground station. For a board member to recently state, “I think the board is committed to the underground station as best for the community at large” shows astonishing hubris and a willful avoidance of reality.
“Recent Phase 2 cost estimates are extremely troubling. While original projections put the cost of Phase 2 at $2.5 billion, the cost spikes to at least $3.5 billion under the plan approved by the MWAA board. With such dramatic cost increases before a contract is even awarded, some have expressed concerns about the credit worthiness of the bonds that will be issued to pay for Phase 2. Airport authorities nationwide have been placed on notice that bond ratings could be lowered in the future. An additional $300 million or more for Dulles Rail could be a troublesome sign for the bond markets. I fear an increase in borrowing costs could effectively kill the project in the design phase.
“Considering all this information, I do not believe that the current board of directors is acting in the best interests of the northern Virginia residents who will be forced to underwrite costs for Phase 2 through increased tolls on the DTR and increased revenue from county coffers. The underground station will add at least $300 million to the overall cost of Phase 2. When long-term financing costs are included, the underground station could end up adding closer to $500 million to the project. It is my understanding that tolls on the Dulles Toll Road could reach $10.25 in 2020, eight-and-a-half years from now. The initial toll projection issued by MWAA had tolls reaching $11.25 by 2047. As the cost of Phase 2 goes up, so will the tolls.
“A recent Washington Post editorial indicated that commuters could be forced to pay as much as $4,000 a year to use the toll road by 2020. Add in the tolls on the Dulles Greenway and my constituents’ transportation costs could be higher than their monthly car payments. It will be the parents taking their children to school and soccer practice, the business owner that uses the DTR on a daily basis to make deliveries, the realtor who will see home sales decrease due to the higher transportation costs and the commuters to Tysons Corner who will shoulder the heavy burden of the MWAA board’s recent decisions.
“I want both MWAA and Dulles Rail to be successful. Because of that, Rep. Tom Latham, chairman of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, and I have asked the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) to conduct an audit of the operations of the MWAA board. I am pleased that the IG’s office will begin this audit in the near future. Outside of the actual composition of the board, it is my hope that the audit will examine the governance structure of MWAA and determine if it operates with the transparency necessary for an organization tasked with such important responsibilities.
“In the meantime, I urge support for my legislation to update the board’s composition and appointment structure to reflect today’s realities.”