A local paper recently quoted Loudoun Board Chair Phyllis Randall as saying that in her observation “some of the concerns raised by the people who opposed Metro are coming to fruition.” Chair Randall’s statement is quite accurate. I, along with many others, vocally opposed the terms Loudoun signed on to. The yet-to-be resolved concerns which were brought to the previous board over and over again are mostly financial, but will impact future development in Loudoun.
While Loudoun’s Metro commitment is referred to by some as an investment, that is a stretch. Loudoun County committed $268 million to build our shiny new Silver Line onto the existing Metro system, which is almost completely worn out. If Metro were a privately-owned business, it would have declared bankruptcy long ago. Instead it hobbles along, becoming less safe and less popular by the day. By opting to partner on the Metro extension into Loudoun, taxpayers became a party to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Compact. That obligates Loudoun County to pay an unspecified share of the Metro funding starting when the Silver Line becomes operational in the County. The County’s estimate when it opted into the project in 2012 was for WMATA payments to be $17 million in FY2019 growing to $36 million in FY2045, a 27-year total of $721 million.
Where will Loudoun County get all that money? For now, station-area real estate taxes, and gas tax revenue. But those revenue streams won’t scratch the surface when the big ticket items hit, such as money for ongoing operation, money for long-overdue bottom-up system rebuild, money to pay for the $2.5-billion-dollar unfunded employee pension liability, and money to build the critically needed multi-billion-dollar new tunnel under the Potomac. Like it or not, these huge liabilities came with the package.
In preparation for Metro development, Loudoun County has initiated a plan to spend heavily on roads to accommodate Metro-related development, some of that development will take place on Dulles Airport property and be exempt from proffers. It is very important to note that in Virginia, with very few exceptions, roads typically are funded by VDOT or by land developers, not with county dollars. Departing from that trend and taking on the role of developer, on April 5th of this year, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors adopted the FY17 budget, including the FY 2017-2022 Capital Improvement Program (CIP). Capital improvements include buses, school buildings, equipment, etc. Approximately 38 percent of the CIP’s projected spending for the next six fiscal years is on transportation projects; this amounts to about $723 million. Twelve projects in the FY2017-2022 CIP are directly related to improving access to Metrorail or to non-Silver-Line WMATA capital projects, accounting for $263 million, about 36 percent of all transportation spending. Those twelve projects saw a nearly 200 percent increase in funding from the previous year’s CIP, when they were slated for only $89 million. The twelve projects also do not include three additional Metrorail-station-area projects whose funding authorization was completed last year – another $165 million. These CIP figures also do not take into account the money the County is spending on Dulles Rail construction costs, or operations and maintenance subsidies Loudoun taxpayers will be obligated to when Metro begins service to Loudoun County.
Loudoun County is in a tight spot. Paying for the Silver Line construction by taxing the developers who are profiting from Metro development is better than taxing people who never use the Metro. But by allowing more rezoning and development in exchange for proffers, you perpetuate a cycle which always leaves taxpayers on the hook. Well established trends in Loudoun and elsewhere reveal that rezoning and the eventual new development create demand for new services and infrastructure which proffers never fully cover. By pushing forward with massive new development to provide revenue to Loudoun and riders to Metro, as a county we are digging ourselves deeper into a financial hole.
Loudoun supervisors see cash proffers as a valuable source of revenue to address the impacts of new development, impacts which would otherwise be funded through general tax revenue. I agree that counties should be allowed to protect taxpayers by accepting proffers that are fair and allowed by law. The newly revised proffer law just passed by the General Assembly allows that. Loudoun favors having broader discretion to accept proffers in exchange for rezoning to allow higher density development.
Metro has a well-established history of unmet ridership goals and funding shortages. Elected leaders are not likely to admit a mistake like committing to partner on Metro under horrible terms; instead they tend to push forward decisions which try to fix past mistakes, in this case by seeking to stimulate proffer income and Metro ridership with new development.
The easiest, but not the best, way to make Metro in Loudoun County appear successful is to ignore the promises made four years ago in the run up to opting in, promises that new development would be non-residential and be confined to the eastern part of the County. Loudoun County taxpayers should not be the backstop for the Metro money mess nor should we allow our beautiful rural countryside to be overrun with development pushing west trying to proffer our way out of the hole.
Delegate Dave LaRock was elected in November 2013 to represent the 33rd House District, including parts of Loudoun, Clarke and Frederick Counties, and the towns of Leesburg (partial), Purcellville, Berryville, Lovettsville, Round Hill, Hamilton and Hillsboro. LaRock serves on the Transportation Committee, the Science and Technology Committee and the Education Committee. Dave and his wife, Joanne, have lived in Loudoun for 29 years, building a successful family-owned general contracting business. The LaRocks reside near Hamilton with Laura, Abby and John, the youngest of their seven children.