Bad News Coming Down the Tracks

Bad News Coming Down the Tracks

Predictions of higher Metrorail costs have left Loudoun government officials with a lot of questions – and few answers.

New reports show Loudoun County could be required to finance $82.2 million in an annual contribution toward Metro by 2025, nearly $61 million more than predicted when the Board of Supervisors narrowly approved rail expansion in 2012. Staff and supervisors alike have expressed anger and frustration about the news, and are facing hard questions about how to address Loudoun’s ongoing obligations to the Metro system itself.  That concern is in addition to issues related to the Silver Line expansion to Loudoun.

The Board has made it clear that backing out is not an option, and reiterated that during its Transportation and Land Use Committee (TLUC) meeting on Feb. 17. While Metro’s arrival to Loudoun is certain, how to finance it is not.

Supervisor Geary Higgins (R- Catoctin) was one of several on the Board to express their frustration during the TLUC meeting. “We had rainbows and unicorns in 2012” Higgins said in regards to projections for Metro’s financial obligation. Even with those rosier projections the Board was divided. Now Metro is inevitable, and the County is facing a greater burden.

“We have some hard decisions to make now,” said Higgins, who voted against Metro expansion in 2012. “We better have better numbers.”

There are dozens of factors that could impact Loudoun’s financial obligations, chief among them is bus operating costs. Loudoun has opted out of providing any money for Metro’s bus system, which could save the county around 30 to 35 percent of it’s annual contributions. Even without bus service, that still leave Loudoun on the hook for a substantial, and currently undetermined, annual cost.

A more concrete, detailed report on Loudoun’s fiduciary responsibility to the system is scheduled to come out in April, but that won’t be nearly enough to answer questions about rail’s future. Metro itself is still facing daunting challenges in lost ridership, safety concerns and labor relations that could further exacerbate financial pressures on serviced jurisdictions including Loudoun.

Loudoun had discussed joining the Washington Area Metro Transit Authority (WMATA), the nation’s second-largest subway rail system, for years and momentum for a partnership culminated in the term of the previous board. Public opinion was divided, leading to widespread displays of support and opposition among the public and elected officials for months leading up to a final decision. On July. 3, 2012, on a 5-4 vote, the board approved the addition of three new Metro rail stations to the Silver Line expansion in Northern Virginia. That meant Loudoun would have to provide around $275 million of the $5.8 billion Silver Line project in part to finance the construction of the new stations, at Dulles Airport, the intersection of the Dulles Greeway and Rt. 606 and the intersection of the Greenway and Rt. 772, respectively. Additionally, it would have to pay $84.5 million for three new parking garages to help service the stations.

Loudoun also joined the Washington Area Metro Transit Authority compact, and would be responsible for 4.1 percent of the Metro’s annual operating and capital costs. Those costs have grown significantly in the years since and, in the years to come, could eventually dwarf the initial construction burdens on Loudoun.

In 2012, WMATA predicted Loudoun would need to contribute $16.2 million as its share of the operating and capital costs within its first year with annual contributions growing to $21.5 by 2025. Along with delays that pushed back the projected opening of rail service to Loudoun back by two years, new projections from the Washington Area Council of Governments (COG) show how much costs have skyrocketed. COG’s report shows Loudoun will be responsible for $31.5 million more than what was initially expected in 2020 and the new projections have costs continuing to balloon going forward.

This is in large part due to extensive capital improvement projects beginning the past year. Under the leadership of General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, Metro has said it needs massive physical overhauls to reach acceptable safety and reliability standards. While Wiedefeld has received glowing support from local, state and federal politicians, his aggressive plans to make much-needed repairs have left major disruptions in rail schedules and significant rises in costs. This has helped shine a spotlight on WMATA’s intangible disrepair in employee accountability and safety culture, perpetuating a seemingly continuous cycle of negative publicity- all the while increasing anger among Loudoun residents who never supported joining the system in the first place.

Other jurisdictions already with Metro rail service are facing similarly daunting cost increases from WMATA, which is already in bad financial shape. Metro is the only major urban metro rail system without a consistent source of government funding. That has added to Metro’s challenges, and this system that is facing a more than $290 million budget shortfall heading into its 2018 fiscal year.

WMATA leadership has proposed fare increases or service limitations if a dedicated funding source doesn’t materialize. Loudoun supervisors have advocated for a funding stream from the Virginia government, but politicians around the Commonwealth have shown little interest earmarking tax dollars to support a system that will only service three northern Virginia counties and two independent cities. National elected officials, including Virginia 10th District Rep. Barbara Comstock (R), and Sen. Tim Kaine (D), have publicly supported a federal source of funding as part of a nationwide infrastructure investment, but it awaits to be seen if lawmakers from across the nation will sign on to support Metro in particular.

Loudoun Supervisors are loathe to meet the funding requirements from the county’s general fund as it would mean taking money away from other government services to use for a high-price public transits system opposed by many county residents. The Board has already worked on a possible funding stream through a special tax district around the new Metro stations, but it’s long-term potential, especially in light of WMATA’s challenges, is just one of many questions.

“I’m one who hopes the numbers get a whole lot better, but I’m trying to figure out where we are to make reasonable assumptions today,” Higgins said.