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Airports agency must clean house or face skyrocketing tolls

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Photo - The under-construction Silver Line (Examiner file photo)
The under-construction Silver Line (Examiner file photo)
Local,Virginia,Transportation,Liz Essley

Officials at the embattled Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority vowed reform after a top U.S. official warned that federal loans for the Silver Line could be in jeopardy if nepotism and shoddy contracting continues at the authority.

"The secretary has put the carrot out there of [federal] loans, and so we are going to do everything we can to make it right," airports board member Tom Davis told The Washington Examiner. "We have no interest in doing anything but the right thing. The members of this board want to get this straightened out. There's a new sheriff in town."

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood warned the troubled airports authority in charge of the rail project that he may withhold the loans if it doesn't stop shady contracting and nepotism -- practices unveiled by a recent federal audit.

"They have pending before us a [federal loan application]," LaHood said before a congressional oversight hearing on the airports authority Friday. "We're not going to give them a [federal loan] if they're not doing things correctly."

Authority data show tolls for a one-way trip down the length of the Dulles Toll Road could reach $10.75 in 2019 if the agency doesn't get the federal loans. They will reach only $6.75 if they do get the loans.

LaHood said he feels confident the "fresh blood" at the authority -- new board members and a relatively new CEO -- can clean up the airports' reputation.

The comments came in a Friday hearing before a House of Representatives committee that grilled representatives of the airports authority on a recent federal audit that showed nepotism and shady contracting practices were rampant at the agency.

"It's a sad day for metropolitan Washington" said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., adding that the authority "has become a poster child for corrupt practices."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said airports officials had accepted gifts "that would make Jack Abramoff blush."

LaHood credited an article in The Washington Examiner for motivating him to demand reform at the airports agency. The article detailed the hiring of a former board member for a $180,000-per-year job the day after she resigned from the board for health reasons.

"When I read the article I couldn't believe it. To me, that was the tip of the iceberg," LaHood said.

But airports CEO Jack Potter admitted to the committee that some relatives of board members still work at the MWAA and that he had "not good" judgment when he hired a former board member for an $180,000-per-year job the day after she resigned from the board for health reasons.

By the end of the hearing, some committee members remained unimpressed with the reforms.

"To be honest with you, gentlemen, I have a supreme lack of confidence in your board. If it was up to me, I would dissolve the board," said Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn.

lessley@washingtonexaminer.com

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