Along Dulles Metrorail extension, expediency trumps aesthetics

March 19, 2012

The elevated Dulles Airport Metrorail extension, taking shape as it loops through Tysons Corner, is even more unattractive and visually intrusive than predicted by many who now can say “told you so.” What a tragedy that the line was not built underground, especially in light of plans to transform Tysons Corner into a city.

Recall the battle several years ago between those, including me, strongly in favor of running the line through a tunnel and those favoring the elevated line. State and federal transportation officials, along with the contractor responsible for engineering and managing construction of the extension, insisted that going underground would cost much more than an elevated line.

Tysons property owners and developers, urban planners, architects, local citizens and even Metrorail officials argued that the tunnel option was the right way to go. Profoundly committed Tysons tunnel advocates got organized and raised money privately to pay consultants and a tunnel contractor to prepare a preliminary design study and detailed cost estimates. The goal was to demonstrate the engineering and economic feasibility of the tunnel option, including underground stations.

The Tysons tunnel study showed relatively little cost difference between an elevated and underground line when both capital costs and lifetime operating and maintenance costs are taken into account. Nevertheless, the underground option was stubbornly resisted and ultimately rejected by decision-makers convinced that tunneling, despite the study’s findings, would be too expensive.

Authorities also feared that, with much engineering work already completed by the contractor, switching to the tunnel option would delay the project and jeopardize U.S. Department of Transportation funds essential for financing the extension. The federal grant was contingent on meeting immutable, near-term deadlines for implementation. Thus, because of schedule and money pressures of the moment, design and construction of the unsightly overhead line proceeded.

This sad tale is emblematic of a recurring American tendency to make expedient, process-driven decisions while ignoring or sacrificing long-term performance and aesthetic benefits. And when it comes to public infrastructure, especially visible infrastructure that will stand and function for generations, this tendency is truly lamentable.

Yet we are capable of behaving otherwise when investing in infrastructure. Americans built San Francisco’s beautiful Golden Gate Bridge and Washington’s graceful Memorial Bridge spanning the Potomac River. The national capital’s underground Metrorail stations, and the Dulles and Reagan National airport terminals, are exceptional works of design. These were not just utilitarian infrastructure projects engineered only to get the most operational bang for the buck. They were conceived to be aesthetically rich and memorable, to have timeless visual appeal by virtue of artfully composed form, proportions, materials and details.

By contrast, the looming Metrorail viaduct through Tysons looks heavy and ponderous. The thick, reinforced concrete supports marching along the Tysons thoroughfares are, for want of a better word, clunky. They lack articulation of shape or surface that might mitigate their aesthetic inelegance and massiveness. They are structurally robust but hardly beautiful.

Tunnel proponents also correctly predicted the elevated line’s negative impact on streets and buildings near the rail line, impact that is already evident. Despite open space between vertical supports and under track-supporting concrete girders, the viaduct will unavoidably act as a virtual divider, longitudinally bisecting street rights-of-way. Where it runs along edges of blocks, it will always be an undesirable, in-your-face neighbor for retailers, office tenants and residents occupying abutting buildings.

Trains moving overhead will generate noise and propel particulate matter into the air. After a few years, the viaduct’s concrete surfaces inevitably will become stained and dirt-impregnated. Thus, the structure will be even more of an eyesore than it is today.

All this would have been avoided had the line been underground. When the tunnel was first proposed and its feasibility explored, state and federal powers-that-be — including Congress — could and should have made it happen, even if it meant amending process-driven federal rules, spending somewhat more money and delaying construction by a year or two.

A heavy rail line running overhead through the middle of a city is a long discredited, really bad idea functionally, environmentally and aesthetically. And the Dulles Metrorail extension will be with us for a century or more, serving our great-grandchildren and their children. Therefore, in view of its service life span, initial capital cost differentials and construction start dates should have been much less sacrosanct.

In the interest of saving relatively small amounts of time and money, how foolish and nonsensical to have made such an unwise infrastructure investment decision with such adverse long-term consequences. In the past, we have done much better and should do much better again in the future.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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