Out of Control Policy Blog

LaHood Calls Silver Line a Model and Then Rips Agency Building the Line

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood praised the Silver Line heavy-rail transit project on Monday. Then on Tuesday LaHood castigated the agency building the project, Metro Washington Airports Authority (MWAA). On Monday, according to WTOP, LaHood waxed poetically about the Silver Line: 

"This is the story similar to the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, the Interstate system," he says. "This is a model. We're gonna take this on the road. We're gonna talk about this project in other places in the country." 

Perhaps LaHood was referring to the agency’s pursuit of a megaproject. Being bold enough to create a mega-project is good only if the project serves a transportation need, is on-time and on-budget. The Silver Line from East Falls Church, VA to Ashburn, VA serves a need. But it is neither on-time nor on-budget. 

The decision to build transit in the corridor makes sense. Transit service is lacking. Whether BRT would have been a better solution than heavy-rail is a very good question. But at least the Silver Line is transit service that quickly moves people from point A to point B.

However, the project has many, many problems. The practices of the Metro Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) governing board, safety and cost overruns have become issues. The MWAA board’s government structure is a mess. In a report released earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office detailed how MWAA’s policies relating to financial disclosures, travel, transparency and procurement are insufficient. The board’s ethics and disclosure laws are very weak and lack procedural safeguards. In a separate article the Washington Examiner uncovered many questionable practices such as: a board member who resigned from the board for health reasons and was given a $180,000 salary with no specific job, a former board member who received nearly $1 million in MWAA contracts after he left the board, and a vendor, who was awarded a $42,000 no-bid contract to import flowers from Ethiopia. How can this board be a model for anything? 

Safety is also an issue. Bridge safety questions were first raised in 2009 when the chief bridge manager questioned whether the steel pilings that carried the tracks over I-66 were safe. The agency ignored his concerns for six months until the Washington Post reported on his concerns. Federal officials became involved and they ordered more tests. But without federal pressure, the MWAA would have continued ignoring the problem. At the time, FTA administrator Peter Rogoff was concerned about management of the project by the Airports Authority which provided “unacceptable” and sloppy” responses. The problem is that MWAA has no motivation for ensuring safety. They are building the line for WMATA. To the MWAA if an accident happens, it is WMATA’s problem. How is an agency that neglects safety considered a model? 

Finally, cost escalation has been the biggest problem. Infrastructure costs, especially for transit, have a habit of creeping upward. The difference in rail projects estimated and actual costs is 44%. The costs of the second phase have a similar cost creep rising from $2.5 billion to $3.5 billion. Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was able to reduce costs by getting MWAA to scrap a labor-friendly provision that seemed to violate at least the spirit of Virginia’s right to work laws. Several transit expansions have kept cost creep to less than 20 percent. While any cost creep should be avoided, in the transit world less than 20% is fairly good. When one phase of a project increases by $1 billion how is that project considered a model? 

This does not touch on the strangest issue. Why is an airport board building the line instead of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) that actually operates and maintains heavy-rail in the DC area? Much of the funding comes from Dulles toll-road users. MWAA is the principal entity that has access to these funds. In major projects whoever has the money drives the process. Even if that agency has no experience in the field. 

Clearly LaHood is aware of some of the problems. Having such a dysfunctional board manage anything not to mention a major infrastructure expansion is a recipe for disaster. And Secretary LaHood knows it. On Tuesday, after LaHood praised the Silver Line, he wrote a letter with DC Mayor Gray, Maryland Governor O’Malley, and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell reading in part: 

We are gravely concerned with the lack of accountability, transparency and sound judgment that has come to light regarding the Board’s recent activities. The Inspector General raised concerns related to nepotism and provided example of Board members participating in matters in which they have potential conflicts of interest. The report reveled excessive spending on air travel, meals, and wine. 

The “outraged” officials outlined several improvements that the MWAA board needed to make in the letter.

Clearly, this project is no model. Why would LaHood praise it? Does he want new-rail transit so badly he ignores governance, safety and cost issues? 

This is the latest in a series of ignorant statements emanating from Secretary LaHood’s mouth. LaHood complained about a number of provisions in the transportation bill that was written mostly by fellow Democrat Barbara Boxer. He could have shaped that bill but Congress, tired of a White House MIA on transportation for 3 ½ years finally decided it could not wait any longer. LaHood continues to tout the TIGER Grants Program that even many Democrats admit is more political tool than discretionary program. He continues to defend the administration’s high-speed-rail program that other Democrats admit was terribly executed. Worst of all he could be back for a second term. LaHood announced earlier this year that he was leaving the White House after one-term. However, after receiving no offers for his transportation expertise, he is rethinking his decision. Perhaps Tom Vilsack will find a better job and Mr. LaHood will be appointed to the position that he told the New York Times he really wants: Secretary of Agriculture. The cows may protest but at least the country will have someone competent overseeing transportation.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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