Friday, January 25, 2008

Bush to NoVA: Drop Dead

Hate sitting in traffic on Interstate 66 or the Dulles Toll Road? You ain't seen nothin' yet. Yesterday the Bush administration's Federal Transit Administration pulled the rug out from under the plan to extend Metro to Dulles Airport.

Would rail to Dulles cut the current congestion on Northern Virginia highways? Probably not. The region is growing so fast, the "Silver Line" as it's referred to would likely just keep things from getting a lot worse. Which is what they're going to get every year this project gets put off.

Was the plan perfect? Of course not. It would've been very expensive and without a dedicated funding source. The tunnel through Tysons was scrapped in hopes of cutting costs, ironically enough, to please the FTA. The line would've been built by Bechtel, one of the contractors that botched Boston's Big Dig.

But in a region that's already in violation of federal air quality standards, the project would take thousands of cars off the road every single day. And as Marc Fisher points out, "the feds were only asked to contribute 20 percent of the cost of this project, compared to the usual 50 percent or even 80 percent on other big transportation jobs around the country."

So why did the Bush administration move to kill the project? Just three days before the FTA's announcement, the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt hinted at the true motivation -- an ideological opposition to federal funding for transportation:

"We believe, however, that a failure to properly align supply and demand, not a failure to generate sufficient tax revenues, is the essential policy failure," the Bush dissenters wrote. "When consumer demand determines supply, it will engender funding sufficient to meet the demand."

This is an astonishingly radical view of government's role in transportation. Cast backward, it would suggest that President Dwight D. Eisenhower never should have built the interstate highway system; it should have been left to private companies to build roads wherever tolling could generate a profit, and nowhere else. The result -- an incomplete, disconnected patchwork of highways -- might indeed have suited [Secretary of Transportation Mary] Peters, given that another of her goals is a reduced federal role in transportation policy. But the country would have been poorer for it.

Hiatt took that ideology to its logical conclusion, giving him a premonition of the project's death:
You can see the effect of the Bush ideology in recent reports, as recounted by The Post's Amy Gardner last week, that the administration is yet again looking for excuses to kill rapid transit rail to Dulles Airport. Having jumped through every hoop demanded -- giving up on a tunnel through Tysons Corner, cutting $300 million in costs -- the region finds itself facing another, unexplained roadblock. But if you understand the Bush philosophy, the roadblock isn't so hard to explain: If profit alone -- and not clean air, or joining the rest of the civilized world in connecting airports to cities, or any other consideration -- matters, then Dulles rail no doubt slides down the priority list.

But Marc Fisher sees a light at the end of the tunnel:

A pause of a year or two might be good for the project's future--if the Dems regain the presidency. ... a transit-friendly Democrat in the White House would likely be far more aggressive about making sure Metro found a way to get the new rail line.
I hope Northern Virginia voters keep that in mind in November. In the meantime, I'm glad Gov. Tim Kaine and Sen. John Warner have pledged to keep fighting for Dulles rail, and I'm sure the next Sen. Warner will do the same.
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