The Year in Review: Metro On the Way in Loudoun

As the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority grapples with continued upheaval and reform, Metrorail tracks are being laid in Loudoun and three stations are rapidly taking shape.

Metro is in the regional news regularly for its funding woes. While General Manager Paul Wiedefeld puts the system through dramatic changes to get both its physical condition and administration in shape, the organization is still trying to find a way to fill a $15 billion hole in its budget over the next 10 years. So far, there has been no consensus on what that solution will be. In July, Loudoun joined a chorus of voices from Virginia opposing a 1 percent regional sales tax, concerned that it would put a disproportionate amount of that burden on Northern Virginia.

But Loudoun’s leaders have proposed a different idea to help fill that gap—and one that could be relatively painless.

Because of Metro’s complicated funding structure, which relies on annual budget allocations from several jurisdictions, Metro cannot get the credit ratings to issue general obligation debt, only revenue bonds. That cuts the organization off from a major and regular source of capital financing for most governments and transit systems.

One solution, according to County Administrator Tim Hemstreet and Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), would be to create an organization that can issue debt. That new contract among the Metro jurisdictions would have a credit rating based on the ratings of its member jurisdictions, which Loudoun leaders say could be AA+. And the idea does not rely on an assumption of Congress increasing its investment, although many have argued the federal government should play a greater role in funding the system.

The groundwork for that possibility must first be laid in the Virginia General Assembly, which for technical reasons must first change the source of funding for Metro.

And the solution is short term. After 10 or 12 years, the localities would have to start putting in more money, or find another source of funding. But the idea’s proponents hope that will give the region the time it needs to find that money.

Loudoun’s representation in Congress, meanwhile, has introduced a different solution. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10) recently introduced the Metro Accountability and Reform Act, which reduces the use of overtime, shifts employees from a pension system to a 401k system, and creates a Metro Reform Board and Metro Reform Commission. The Metro Reform Board, posed by former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, has met a less-than-favorable response with some regional government representatives, but came with an endorsement from the chair of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

Loudoun has a somewhat different conversation around Metro than the rest of the region. Here, instead of an aging system, Metro is still under construction, and county leaders have been working for years to bring it into the county. Loudoun commuters who want to ride Metro today have to drive or take a bus to a Metro stop. Their other alternatives are congested roads—or congested and expensive toll roads.

And when it opens, Loudoun will have the largest rail yard in the system.

Of Loudoun’s three stops, one will be at the Dulles Airport Terminal; one will be at the northern edge of the Dulles Airport property; and one will be in Ashburn. Because of longstanding county policy discouraging housing in areas of loud airport noise, the county has leaned toward only allowing housing at the last stop. Those Metro stops in Loudoun have the county government and schools working to plan a type of community the county has never seen before—one that is dense, urban, vertical, walkable, and has a train stop. The closest models so far are mixed-use settings like One Loudoun and Loudoun Station—the latter of which will be within sight of a Metro stop.

Loudoun’s elected representatives have been under intense pressure to allow housing at the eastern stop, at the northern tip of Dulles Airport. In June, supervisors called for a new study of noise around the airport to determine if the current policy is based on an accurate depiction of where airport traffic is the loudest. In October, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority announced it would be doing one.

Planning what will go around those new Metro stops is now in the hands of Envision Loudoun, the county’s effort to rewrite its comprehensive plan.

Meanwhile, the school system, which has been building on wide open green spaces, also has been rethinking how it will design schools for those urban spaces.

And in June, Loudoun County Fire and Rescue unveiled its first Metro car training facility, made from two decommissioned Metro cars. It is being used to train firefighters to work around the unusual dangers of working on the rails, including the 750-volt electrified third rail that powers Metro trains.

Metro service is on schedule to begin in the first quarter of 2020. The Loudoun Gateway station is expected to be complete in October, with the Ashburn station wrapping up construction in February 2019. They and the tracks will then be turned over to the authority for testing.

rgreene@loudounnow.com

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