By Carten Cordell Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — It had many elements of the classic western “High Noon.”
There’s Gary Cooper, a western marshal nervously awaiting an outlaw, who will arrive by train and gather his band, intent on pilfering the town.
Alone and unsure, Cooper must overcome daunting odds and self-doubt to clear the way for calm, prosperity.
That’s the plan, anyway.
Either way, the rail line will come, to be met with the hope of prosperity and, inevitably, doubt and second guesses. Will the metaphorical hero prevail? Will the vote, like the movie, lead to a happy ending? Or must we wait for the sequel?
In a 5-4 vote, the board narrowly approved two new stations in the county and to contribute more than $270 million toward construction of the $2.7 billion line.
The Board of Supervisors’ vote is seen by many as a defining point in the winding, uncertain saga of bringing the mass transit line to Washington Dulles International Airport.
But the $6 billion project has been rife with conflict.
A plan to shift the controversial price tag from taxpayers to the business interests expecting to reap a financial windfall from Dulles rail carried the controversial proposal forward.
But to pay the cost of building the Silver Line without raising taxes, Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors passed a plan to develop three tax districts to fund construction and operating costs.
The plan, developed by Supervisor Shawn Williams, calls for the districts to be set up around the development-zoned areas of the line, including a “rail service district” for the area around the line and a “station development district” for land within a half mile of the proposed stations.
A third, “airport service district” was added before Tuesday’s vote for the area within a half mile of the Dulles stop.
A 20-cent property tax per $100 of assessed value will be added for property owners in the district. The proposed district includes little residential development, but it’s the target area for the multi-modal development forecast from the inclusion of mass transit.
Business and residential development, which the Silver Line is expected to attract, will help pay for construction costs without raising rates on Loudoun’s current residents.
As the development of the area progresses, the tax rates for the service district could — theoretically, anyway — fall as more business moves into the development district, allowing it to shoulder more of the tax burden.
Debate on the project was at times heated, as supervisor Eugene Degaudio tried several times to persuade the board members to vote against the plan.
“This is an alien invasion, the likes of which we go to Regal Cinemas and pay $11 for,” he said.
But Delgaudio’s motions to dismiss the meeting, move the rail vote to public referendum and discuss it in open committee, failed. The issue, then, came down to swing member Ken Reid.
Reid said the tax districts were the deciding factor in his abrupt change from anti-metro to pro-metro tiebreaker.
“There is no question I have been a staunch critic of rail. I was also clear that if we could establish a service district, I would support it,” he said.
Seen as a critical partner to building the line beyond Dulles, Loudoun’s vote had observers waiting anxiously as neighbor and funding partner Fairfax County in April approved paying $497 million to build the 11-mile Phase 2 portion of the line.
Loudoun delayed its vote and proposed a July 4 deadline, as attention focused on whether the growing county would spend $267 million to help fund two stations beyond Dulles. In addition to the construction, county officials are also on the hook for the maintenance and operating costs for the line, which are projected to reach $21.5 annually by 2025.
For grassroots campaign Loudoun Opt Out, which has opposed the project from the start, the new plan still doesn’t prove the county can foot the bill without taking from the general fund.
“I think the costs have been greatly understated,” said Loudoun Opt Out spokesman David LaRock. “I think the projected revenue; the word ‘projected’ means it may come, it may not. That reveals that this is a speculative process where the revenue may come or not.”
The tax revenue projections are from a report by the Robert Charles Lesser Co., a Bethesda, Md.,-based real estate advisory firm that measured the economic impact the rail line would carry to Loudoun. The Lesser report projected the Silver Line would generate $269.5 million in fiscal impact from residential and business development in Loudoun by 2040.
That’s not to say there isn’t some risk to Loudoun residents.
As documents from the board’s June 29 work session note: “The [tax district] scenario presented does not include general funds to support the financing plan options; however, it should be noted that, as with any appropriation-based debt, the general fund will be required to serve as a backstop for the debt.”
If the rosy business future fails to materialize in Loudoun, residents will be on the hook to pay.
The costs for the line were simply too much for other board members to be swayed.
“If somebody could actually predict what things will be like 40 years from now, they would be a frickin’ millionaire,” board member Suzanne Volpe said.
In April, the governor’s biennial budget was nearly derailed when McDonnell butted heads with Senate Democrats over the money Virginia would provide for toll mitigation on the Dulles Toll Road. The toll road, which is expected to contribute $1.8 billion to Phase 2, is projected to see its rates rise significantly to meet the cost. McDonnell proposed sending $150 million to temper the toll rates; Democrats wanted twice that. The impasse killed three budget proposals and nearly caused a government shutdown. Eventually, the budget was passed with the original $150 million intact.
In June, McDonnell fired MWAA board member Dennis Martire over his ties to organized labor and spending on MWAA business trips. Martire filed suit in federal court, and McDonnell appointed Caren Merrick to the board, though the seat remains empty while the courts decide on the dispute.
The rift between McDonnell and MWAA has only widened, but both parties agreed on at least two things: the importance of the Silver Line project to the area and the need for Loudoun County to help carry it out.
MWAA voted last month to drop a controversial project labor agreement that offered an incentive-based grading scale to contractors using union labor. McDonnell held the $150 million until the PLA was dropped, but Loudoun’s participation in the project weighed as much if not more on the authority’s decision.
The train is in the station. Let the hand-wringing begin.
“Ken (Reid) has been working with our group all along,” LaRock said. “He has been one of the leaders that has helped guide us. It’s a huge shock to hear that Ken has had such a huge change of heart.”