Late afternoon clouds hover behind the Dulles International Airport. (John McDonnell/The Washington…)
Dulles International Airport has seen a tough few years. Fewer passengers are flying into and out of the airport’s iconic terminal. Less cargo is moving across its tarmac. And with the global economy still sputtering, there’s no telling when the airport’s fortunes will turn around.
A solution, some Virginia officials say, is the long-debated Bi-County Parkway, a proposed road between Prince William and Loudoun counties that could serve as a new conduit for people and cargo passing through Dulles. Proponents say it would spur business development by offering a vital north-south link to the airport, giving businesses easy access to an international gateway.
With thousand of acres of undeveloped land and a Metrorail connection that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority aims to open in 2018, authority officials hope to build new facilities — perhaps offices and another hotel — on airport property to generate additional revenue. On the land around the airport’s runways, MWAA officials say new buildings to house cargo, including units that could store flowers, pharmaceuticals and other perishables, could boost the airport’s bottom line. They point to a soon-to-be built United Airlines maintenance hangar as an example of the airport’s potential to bring in more jobs and tax revenue.
“On the East Coast, there’s one airport that has the potential to grow, and that’s Dulles,” said John E. “Jack” Potter, the MWAA’s president and chief executive.
Supporters of the Bi-County Parkway argue that is why the road is needed. Opponents, however, contend that the road will not help Dulles as much as some supporters claim because the passenger and shipping volumes do not justify it.
The issue has thrust Dulles, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, into the latest round of a long-running debate over where and how Northern Virginia should grow. A groundswell of opposition has slowed the parkway’s momentum in recent months and highlighted a host of concerns, among them the prospect of more sprawl. But the road remains part of the state’s master transportation plan, and officials indicated last month that they are moving forward.
In an interview, Potter said the road link could help, but not on its own. “To me, the movement of people north and south, the movement of trucks north and south, helps all businesses in the area, including the airport,” Potter said. “But can we say that if the road is built, cargo will grow? No.”
Dulles has not been waiting to see what happens with the road before tackling the airport’s challenges.
To try to improve the traveling experience, the airport has added a first-in-the-nation system that provides real-time information on security line waits.
The airport is also trying to move beyond its core aviation focus. The MWAA negotiated changes last year in its Dulles lease with the federal government that could allow for a broader array of commercial activities on airport-controlled property.
As much as Dulles is struggling, its smaller sibling, Reagan National Airport, is booming, thanks in part to new legislation that has allowed more of the long-distance flights that were long dominated by Dulles.
Last year, Reagan had a record year with 19.7 million passengers passing through its gates, nearly a 5 percent increase over 2011 levels. At Dulles, the number of passengers moving through the airport decreased almost 3 percent from the previous year to 22.6 million. The amount of freight moving through the airport has also dropped. In the six-year period between 2007 and 2012 the amount of cargo moving through Dulles dropped by 90,652 metric tons — a decrease of 25.2 percent.
The cargo struggles have provided an opening for proponents of the Bi-County Parkway, who say the airport needs more road access.
Tony Howard, president and chief executive of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, is one of the road’s most vocal champions. “It will benefit the airport and also the many businesses around the airport. It will steer commercial growth in areas around Dulles.”
Population growth has slowed in Prince William and Loudoun, but people are still moving to those communities, and supporters of the project say that it is better to build the parkway before local roads are overwhelmed.
Leo J. Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a nonprofit group of business and community leaders that advocates for the airports, likens the need for the Bi-County Parkway to the early days of the Dulles Toll Road, when there was no roadway connecting it to Interstate 66. Building that three-mile connector made it easier for people to get to the airport and may have ultimately helped increase passenger traffic, he said. He envisions a similar scenario for the parkway.