The plan to build a Metrorail line from West Falls Church through Tysons Corner is advanced as a means of easing Northern Virginia's traffic woes. But the rail project is in many ways a monumental real estate deal that some critics say will further develop an already crowded crossroads.
The mere presence of a rail stop can, under Fairfax County's land-use plan, roughly double the amount of building permitted on surrounding parcels. And with that in mind, scores of Tysons Corner landowners agreed last year to tax themselves to help pay for construction of the $1.5 billion rail line out to their properties.
It is proving a substantial investment. The owners of Tysons Corner Center, who are planning a mammoth hotel and office center around the mall, will pay $1.3 million in the rail tax this year alone, new assessments show. West Group Properties, one of the area's largest developers, will put up at least $825,000.
Property owners are expected over time to finance as much as $400 million toward Metrorail construction. But the payoff could be greater, not only in convenience and higher property values but also in the ability to build. Rail's arrival would put in play the potential for millions more square feet of offices, stores and condominiums.
"Metrorail allows you to change the landscape," said Bill Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. "It allows you to concentrate all kinds of development in a planned, rational way."
The financing of the Dulles rail project underscores the dynamic between the government and private interests, including developers, that is becoming critical to establish with large-scale public projects in Northern Virginia.
The state and Fairfax County were unable to put up all the money to extend Metro, so they turned to landowners for help. And the private owners say they wouldn't have agreed to tax themselves without development rights and other benefits that come with the rail extension.
Of all the planned rail projects in the United States under review by the Federal Transit Administration, no others of comparable size are being funded with a special assessment district, an agency spokesman said. But proponents say that as governments struggle to pay for roads and rail lines, the Tysons Corner tax district might stand as a model.
Some civic groups, however, see the potential development boom undoing the congestion relief that has been promised with the arrival of Metrorail.
Roads through Tysons Corner, as well as Metro's Orange Line, the line into which the Tysons Corner line would flow, are over capacity, opponents note.
"We can build Manhattan here," said Susan Turner, president of the McLean Citizens Association, who said that the group has not taken an official position on the issue. "But we don't have a Manhattan subway system. As for the roads, Washington's is now the third-most-congested metropolitan area in the nation. The whole idea that we can funnel all these people into Tysons Corner is make-believe."
But boosters hail the simultaneous arrival of rail connections and more urban development in Tysons Corner as another step in its evolution from a hub of suburban sprawl into Northern Virginia's downtown.
Tysons Corner Center, the region's largest mall, for example, recently filed an application that essentially would double the amount of building space on its property, ringing the existing mall with office buildings and a hotel. But that proposal can come to fruition only when the property has a rail station nearby.
The first phase of the Dulles rail project is expected to cost $1.5 billion and stretch from West Falls Church through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue on the eastern edge of Reston.