The $1.8 billion Dulles rail project could use up much of the region’s federal transportation dollars and leave other projects grasping for scraps, say backers of bus rapid transit.
That goes against the message of area politicians, who are pinning their hopes on Congress to help them deliver campaign promises of money for every corner of Northern Virginia.
For example, a new Gainesville interchange could cost $150 million, and this year Congress was able to come up with $1.75 million for it.
“There is no money. It’s pretty clear to most people … yet Virginia is just marching forward as if the money is going to magically appear,” said Bill Vincent, director of the Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
The current stream of federal funds comes from a $217 billion, six-year authorization bill. That bill, which expired last month, was extended through February so Congress can agree on a new funding level.
The White House is willing to increase the funding level to $247 billion, a 12 percent increase, while a House committee wants a $375 billion allocation, which amounts to a 42 percent increase. The Senate wants an allocation of $310 billion.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th District, has secured as much as $25 million a year for Dulles rail access. To date, this amounts to $143 million.
The rail project from west Falls Church to Tysons Corner will need $100 million a year in federal money, Vincent said.
“It’s no secret getting money on the federal side is going to be an uphill climb,” said David Marin, spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, R-11th District.
The federal share is 51 percent, with the state kicking in 24 percent from higher tolls on the Dulles Toll Road and Fairfax, Loudoun and the airport authority picking up 25 percent.
Corey Hill, director of administration and capital projects for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit, said the Federal Transportation Administration has accepted their financing plan.
“All I can simply say is if the FTA determines $100 million from the [new transit projects category] is not reasonable, then they would not advance our project to preliminary engineering,” said Hill, whose agency is managing the project.
Transit funding comes from a separate pot from road funding, so there is no risk for Prince William, Wolf and Davis said.
“It’s really not our fight,” said Democrat Rick Coplen, candidate for county board chairman seat. He and other county Democrats said if Dulles can get $2 billion there should be plenty for a $200 million bus rapid transit system with private partners on Interstate 95, a plan they unveiled in August.
Republican Sean Connaughton, the incumbent Coplen is challenging, disagreed.
“It’s always our fight,” Connaughton said. “There is the potential in that search for state and federal funds it will impact the needs of Prince William County and other jurisdictions.”
Cost estimates for bus rapid transit, or BRT, for Dulles are less than $500 million.
Vincent said the environmental impact statement that came out in favor of rail a year ago was flawed.
Vincent said the environmental analysis put a watered-down version of BRT up against rail.
It did not provide for dedicated lanes, underestimated bus capacity, used half as many stations, and did not run the buses through Tysons Corner, which is possible using traffic signal prioritization, a technology already used for Metro buses on Columbia Pike.
Hill said they feel they evaluated it fairly.
For example, the 60-foot buses that Vincent cites used in Bogota, Columbia, carry 160 passengers, 43 seated and 114 standing, or four persons per square meter, not comfortable for persons who do not want to be touching others, Hill cited in the state report.
Planning guidelines directed the state to assume that every passenger may be seated because these are not short trips, the report said.
BRT in the analysis was able to use the eastbound shoulder of the Dulles Toll Road to avoid congestion like buses do today, the report states. A raised platform through Tysons Corner for buses would not be cost effective nor attractive, it states.
The full report is at http://www.dullestransit.com.
Hill said the analysis reflects what the public will accept: less than 10 percent supported BRT.
Vincent said that’s his point.
“Everyone loves the Disney Monorail. But if you look at the vehicle, it is a rubber-tire vehicle,” Vincent said. “It’s all packaging. If you can get past this public image problem that buses have, which they have because historically they’re underinvested in — we’re really not talking about bus service. We’re talking about something closer to rail service, the only difference is it runs on rubber tires.”
Staff writer Chris Newman can be reached at (703) 878-8062.