Big Plans With Growing Price Tags

Connor Gatti, 21/2, passes between his family's back yard in Silver Spring and land on the approved route of the intercounty connector.
Connor Gatti, 21/2, passes between his family's back yard in Silver Spring and land on the approved route of the intercounty connector. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 17, 2005

As recently as 1999, $2.5 billion was supposed to be enough to build two of the region's most ambitious transportation projects: an 18-mile highway across the Maryland suburbs and a 22-mile Metro line from Falls Church to Dulles International Airport.

Six years later, that amount isn't enough to finance either. The cost of Maryland's intercounty connector is $2.4 billion, and finance charges could push the price to $3 billion. It would cost as much as $2.4 billion to extend Metro just halfway to Dulles.

The steadily escalating price tags of the Washington region's two largest proposed transportation projects are at the heart of debates this summer as one, the connector, nears construction after 40-plus years of indecision and as managers of the other struggle to keep its costs down.

Are they still worth it?

The answer depends on how you look at it. Whether a project is worth building depends primarily on how much it costs, how much time people will save when they use it and how much economic development it will generate. It's also critical to consider whether the cost of one project saps too much money from others.

Then there are factors that are harder to tally, such as what impact the project will have on the environment, how the area around it will grow and even whether people will like its look and feel.

In 2010, according to projections, the connector would carry about 80,000 vehicles a day, equaling $37,500 per driver. In 2011, planners say, the rail extension would add 15,100 riders to Metro, or $158,940 for each.

Those are damning figures to opponents and on the high end of similar projects, transportation experts said.

But benefits of large projects aren't limited to time savings enjoyed by users. They often serve as the backbone of business expansion, and that benefits the entire state.

"As costs go up for these kinds of projects, generally the benefit picture still outweighs the costs," said Hani S. Mahmassani, director of the Maryland Transportation Initiative at the University of Maryland.

David L. Lewis, chief executive of HLB Decision Economics and a leader in analyzing projects, agreed: "Congestion-relieving projects, especially those that were already worthwhile 20 years ago and still haven't been done, simply become more and more worthwhile as time goes on."

But Lewis said rising costs also raise the question of whether a particular project "is the next best project to do."

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