State Delegate Elizabeth Guzmán (D-31) on Wednesday announced a bill that would increase the fuel tax paid by United Airlines to lower the toll on the Dulles Toll Road, which largely funds the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s work to extend the Silver Line.
Opponents have already dismissed the bill as part of a pressure campaign by the labor union Unite Here in an unrelated dispute with United Airlines, the only major airline with a hub operation at Dulles Airport.
MWAA recently announced tolls would go up on the toll road in January. They will increase from the current $2.50 to $3.25 at the main toll plaza, and from $1 to $1.50 on ramps, part of a deal worked out in 2006 when the authority took over the toll road and responsibility for constructing the Silver Line in the road’s median.
Guzmán said her bill would reduce tolls on the Dulles Toll Road by about 22 cents, a revenue loss that would be offset by raising the tax on aviation fuel. Currently, the tax on jet fuel is 5 cents per gallon up to 100,000 gallons, and a half-cent on every gallon thereafter. Guzmán’s bill would raise that to 5 cents on every gallon for airlines that fly more than 8 billion passenger miles out of Virginia—meaning only United. Revenues from the tax on United would be funneled to the Silver Line project and to reducing the Dulles Toll Road rate.
If MWAA did not agree to that, the bill would prohibit the Department of Aviation from disbursing any revenue from taxes on aviation fuel to the authority.
Guzmán said the additional ridership from the Silver Line would benefit the airline, and “United should be paying the tax that all Virginians pay.”
“I made a promise to my constituents when I ran for office,” Guzmán said. “My promise was to fight increases and to fight any new tolls in Virginia, and that’s what I want to do. There is an opportunity right now, and we should all be helping to have this bill passed so we can provide a relief to commuters in Virginia.”
But the bill’s early opponents say it is part of hospitality union Unite Here’s nationwide campaign to pressure United over a dispute about catering kitchen staff compensation. According to Unite Here, in October, the overwhelming majority of United’s 2,700 catering workers voted to join the union. There are no United catering kitchens in Virginia.
“This legislation is nothing more than a political stunt orchestrated by a union seeking leverage on a completely unrelated issue targeting one of Loudoun’s top private employers, United Airlines,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) in an emailed statement. “It is absolutely true that Northern Virginia drivers pay excessive tolls, and there are a myriad of constructive ways that these General Assembly members could assist in buying down tolls on the Dulles Toll Road if they wanted to. This is not one of them.”
Letourneau said raising the cost of doing business for airlines in Virginia “threatens economic opportunities, jobs, and convenience for travelers,” and could mean United does less business at Dulles.
Representatives of Unite Here, along with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization or AFL-CIO and immigration legal services nonprofit CASA, took part in the announcement, holding up signs in favor of the bill at Dulles Airport outside the United Airlines ticketing counters.
“Increasing tolls is another tax on working people in Northern Virginia,” said Doris Crouse-Mays, president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, in a press release. “Commuters and every other business along the Dulles Corridor are already paying their fair share for the Silver Line. United Airlines should too.”
“They are always about trying to fight for the working class, and part of the working class are these commuters who are union members, and they have to travel through the Dulles Toll Road,” Guzmán said. “They are affected by the increase. I’m working with them.” A social worker by trade, she pointed out she is the vice president of the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees Local 3001.
“United Airlines does not receive a special tax break and pays the same jet fuel tax as all other airlines that serve airports in the Commonwealth,” wrote United spokesperson Kimberly Gibbs in an emailed statement. She added the bill singles out one carrier. “This is illegal under both the Commerce and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.”
MWAA and the state have made significant investments in Dulles over the past several years. This year, about $35 million in revenue was shifted from Reagan National Airport to Dulles, and in 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe won General Assembly approval to grant Dulles $50 million over two years to help reduce the passenger fees. The airports authority also sold 424 acres of undeveloped land around Dulles in September for $236.5 million, again moving money into the airport to lower the cost of doing business for airlines—and getting cheaper flights for passengers.
Washington Airports Task Force President Keith Meurlin, a former Dulles Airport manager, said the bill risks reversing course on the state’s investment in Dulles, which is climbing out of the 2008 recession with growing passenger numbers and revenues.
Guzmán, known nationally for delivering the Democratic Party’s Spanish-language response to President Donald J. Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address, has announced that seven other delegates have agreed to co-sponsor it: Paul Krizek (D-44), Marcus Simon (D-53), Kaye Kory (D-38), Lee Carter (D-50), Hala Ayala (D-51), Alfonso Lopez (D-49), and Mark Levine (D-45).
No district of any announced patron of the bill contains any part of the Dulles Toll Road. Their districts are generally south and east of the toll road, and include Falls Church and areas south including West Falls Church and Annandale; parts of Arlington and Alexandria; large portions of Prince William County including Manassas; and the 44th District along Virginia’s eastern border south of Alexandria on the Potomac River, including Fort Hunt and part of Mt. Vernon.
Guzmán said she has not yet contacted delegates from Loudoun, but plans to. Delegate David A. Reid (D-32) and Karrie K. Delaney (D-67), who serve on the House Transportation Committee, have not returned requests for comment.
“My commitment to my constituents is to fight any increase and to fight any new tolls, and that’s what I’m doing,” Guzmán said. “So, I know that this issue is very personal to many people in Northern Virginia, because we don’t have to talk about only the people who live in Loudoun County.”
A representative of MWAA, which operates Dulles International and Reagan National airports and the Dulles Toll Road, declined to comment.