A bill requiring the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to perform an up-to-date economic feasibility study as a precondition for transit projects receiving state funding has been withdrawn by its sponsor, state Sen. Dick Black, R-Leesburg. The reason is that such a rule would cause problems for the $6 billion Silver Line. That's unfortunate, because a current economic feasibility study is exactly what this misbegotten project needs.
Before risking millions of dollars on construction projects, investors typically analyze current market conditions so they can make an educated guess about the future. Only after performing such due diligence do they consider committing the resources needed to move a project from the idea stage to reality. Even then, unexpected events can skew even the most carefully laid plans.
But the Silver Line's underlying economic assumptions are at least a decade old, made when the Washington suburbs were still booming and Loudoun County alone was building 6,000 new homes per year. The Great Recession ended that frenetic pace, and looming sequestration cuts threaten to hit Northern Virginia's Dulles Corridor, with its high concentration of defense contractors, particularly hard.
As Richmond blogger Jim Bacon noted, "The double whammy of unfavorable national and local trends will devastate population projections underpinning megaprojects from Dulles Rail to the proposed north-south corridor west of Dulles."
The only rational response in such circumstances is to hit the pause button, as Black's withdrawn bill would have required DRPT to do.
An updated analysis would take into account the fact that federal spending cuts could jeopardize about 450,000 jobs in the Washington region alone and drag down the local GDP, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has already announced a civilian hiring freeze and delays in awarding contracts in anticipation of sequestration. Other federal agencies are following suit.
Even normally optimistic Dr. Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason's Center for Regional Analysis, warned that steep drops in federal spending will have widespread economic repercussions all over the region. The latest population and growth forecasts in Northern Virginia reflect this new reality.
DRPT and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is managing the Silver Line project based on decade-old information, are both acting as if the Great Recession, the mortgage and foreclosure crisis and the sequestration impasse never happened. To forge ahead without acknowledging these realities would be like driving a locomotive blindfolded.