Big Tysons Landowners Fear Billions in Windfall Profits May Be In Peril

Yet another special interest group has emerged in the political wrangling over the Rail-to-Dulles heavy rail project: Tysons Tomorrow, a consortium of some 20 landowners “poised to develop a new city of high-rises around the four Metro stops planned for Tysons,” reports Amy Gardner with the Washington Post.

In contrast to the Tysonstunnel.org group, which recently filed to block federal funding of the project unless it ran the rail line underneath Tysons Corner, Tysons Tomorrow’s priority is to get the project built one way or the other — even if it means routing the rail above-ground. The business coalition is seeking to end the pressure from tunnel advocates, Gardner writes, because it fears the push could cause further delays and scuttle the project.

Tysons Tomorrow does not yet have a website (although I would expect to see one any day), and Gardener provides only a few tantalizing details of who is underwriting it. She notes that backers includes huge property owners like Lerner Enterprises and the Macerich Group, owners of two Tysons Corner malls, as well as “mom and pop” owners of scattered, smaller parcels.

Gardner hints at the underlying motivation of this group: Jonathan Cherner, whose family owns the Cherner Automotive Group on Rt. 7, and other Tysons landowners, she writes, “have remained quiet through much of the tunnel vs. aerial debate, in part to avoid calling attention to the handsome profits likely to result if the rail line is built. ”

Bingo! Give the woman a prize. Construction of the Metro, whether above ground or below, would create massive profits for the lucky landowners whose property happens to lie along its route. Combined with the increased density that would be permitted around the Metro stations, Tysons landowners collectively stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars — potentially billions of dollars — while paying only a modest fraction of the cost of the rail project. (Property owners would be assessed a tax to cover Fairfax County’s share of the project, but the tax district encompasses a broad swath of territory that spreads the burden to many landowners who would benefit only marginally.)

What someone needs to do is to research (a) who are the property owners around the proposed Metro stations, (b) how much is their property worth now, and (c) how much would that land be worth after increased density and construction of the Metro stations? Would extending Metro to Tysons Corner increase property values by $1 billion? $2 billion? $5 billion?

If property values would increase only $1 billion, it would not be reasonable to ask property owners to foot more than, say, $500 million to $900 million of the bill. But if property values would increase by $5 billion, and property owners would be paying less than one quarter of that amount in taxes, reaping multi-billions in windfall profits, why are we asking the federal government, outlying landowners and commuters along the Dulles Toll Road to pay the balance?

This information is basic, but no one seems to be asking for it. If the Rail to Dulles project creates as much value as its backers say it does — and I think there is a possibility that it does — then it should be possible to finance the project without stiffing the taxpayers of the United States and toll-road commuters who will never use it, and still allow property owners to make a handsome profit. As it stands right now, however, the project is shaping up — if it ever happens — as the biggest undisguised transfer of wealth in Virginia since the tobacco planters were lording it over the slaves.

Big Tysons Landowners Fear Billions in Windfall Profits May Be In Peril