The Subway to Nowhere.

Have we reached the point where the Washington, DC subway system is America’s subway? A local official in Fairfax, Virginia seems to think so.

A Bush administration bias against mass transit projects might be hindering federal approval of the proposed Metro extension to Dulles International Airport, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) charged yesterday.

The Federal Transit Administration is evaluating the project’s cost effectiveness to determine whether it qualifies for $900 million in federal money. The agency has expressed concern about the estimated price tag of the project’s 11.6-mile first phase, which has grown from $1.52 billion in December 2004 to as much as $2.7 billion.

A U.S. Transportation Department inspector general’s report expressed doubts last week about whether the first phase, running from Falls Church through Tysons Corner to Reston, most of which will be financed by Dulles Toll Road user fees and special taxes levied on property owners near the rail line, could meet cost guidelines under the federal New Starts program.

There are several aspects to this report. Chairman Connolly should explain why taxpayers not located in the Washington, DC metro area should fund local mass transit. Assuming the federal government comes to the same incorrect answer that Connolly has, the FTA is correct to evaluate the cost effectiveness. Specifically, it is correct to question whether or not local WMATA officials can meet cost guidelines. WMATA can’t manage the system it has to break-even. Adding more expenses and rail service to manage will not alter this fundamental incompetence.

As with every government sleight of hand, why are Dulles Toll Road users and local property owners expected to pay for this? If it’s a valuable service, shouldn’t rider fees suffice? If not, why is it being built? Tax local drivers and you’ll create subway riders who are no longer paying for the service they now use. Tax property owners and you discourage people from living in the area. That would make the rail line less necessary. Revenue goes down, but fixed costs remain. How will this succeed?

Analysis is irrelevant if you live in Connolly’s head where President Bush is to blame.

“Like a lot of this administration, we have an EPA that doesn’t really believe in the environmental mission. We have an FTA that isn’t quite comfortable with its transit mission,” Connolly said. “They would love, I suppose, to look at other options other than providing $900 million to this project.”

The EPA doesn’t care about protecting the environment because it wants to verify that this solution is the best alternative rather than just an alternative. Any politician who thinks this way should clearly not be in office where they’re free to make decisions for the common good. But that implicates them all, doesn’t it?