Opinion: Putting Silver Line Back on Track

silver line metro

I am willing to bet my fare card that there is only one thing standing in the way of the $300 million that Virginia could scrape up to fund Phase 2 of the Metro extension to Dulles Airport: a pro-union deal mandated by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees construction of the Silver Line.

Sure, politicians are debating a variety of issues, crunching numbers, pointing fingers and crying poormouth, but the real cause of all the trouble is a stipulation by MWAA that gives a bidding advantage to contractors who employ an organized labor workforce.

If MWAA were to eliminate the pro-union terms, Republicans in Richmond would find the money faster than a bullet train on greased tracks.

In the absence of the $300 million, the cost of a one-way trip on the Dulles Toll Road could rise to $4.50 next year. Tolls of $6.75 by 2018 are very likely. Higher costs stoke concerns that motorists will abandon the highway for back roads and surface-streets, creating more traffic jams.

Without proper financial support, delays in completing the project are also possible.

The business community and organized labor have long fought over government-funded projects that favor unions. In Virginia, which is a right-to-work-state, conservative politicians and business leaders view the Silver Line deal as an affront.

Republicans in Richmond, including a governor who may have national aspirations, are never going to blink. It is much easier for them to risk the ire of Northern Virginia voters, from whom they receive little support, than invite the scorn that would come with defying a tenet of conservatism.

Opponents of the pro-union arrangement also point to higher construction expenses. While it is true that estimates for extra costs range from the single digits to as high as 20 percent, it is also true that a winning bidder may voluntarily reach agreements with organized labor to employ a unionized workforce. That is what happened on Phase 1.

Ideological battles are more at play than actual project costs. The presence of a union official on MWAA hasn’t helped to build trust. Nor has the fact that Democrats have appointed the majority of MWAA board members.

Many Republicans view preferential treatment of unions as a means to transfer tax dollars to organized labor where it can be used to fund a political agenda. They say that dues collected from union employees help to fund campaign, lobbying and advocacy operations.

Commuters who ride Metro and drivers who use the toll road do so without regard for party affiliation or their place on the political spectrum. The extension of Metrorail to Dulles Airport is far too significant to be caught up in the politics of unions vs. business, liberals vs. conservatives, Democrats vs. Republicans.

There are plenty of other opportunities to have these fights.

MWAA should be above the fray of partisan politics. It must reconsider the deal carved out for unions and put the Silver Line back on the right track.

Chuck Thies is a political analyst and consultant.  His columns appear every Tuesday and Thursday on First Read DMV. He co-hosts "DC Politics" on WPFW, 89.3 FM. Since 1991, Chuck has lived in either D.C., Maryland or Virginia. Email your tips and complaints to chuckthies@gmail.com or tweet at @chuckthies.

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