A New Emphasis on Rail to Dulles

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The effort by the Washington airports authority to speed construction of a rail line across Northern Virginia is a reminder to the region that the railroad's planners intended the train to serve air travelers as well as commuters.

As the project progressed slowly in recent years and struggled to gain financial support, much of the debate on its value has focused on how useful it would be to suburban workers. The current financing plan would extend rail only through Tysons Corner in Fairfax County.

But last week, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority said it wants to take over the rail program from the Virginia government. That fixed new attention on the theory that a Metro station at Dulles International Airport could help keep the airport growing at a time when more people want to use the airport but find it harder and harder to deal with the traffic to get there.

"When we look at the region, transportation is becoming increasingly more challenging on roadways," said James E. Bennett, president and chief executive of the airports authority, which operates Reagan National and Dulles. "So for us to make sure Dulles continues to service that customer, we need to say, 'What is an alternative to get people out here?' It's the rail link."

Bennett has come to the same conclusion as many others in the airport industry who see rail as a necessary part of the airport of tomorrow.

"Airports used to live by themselves and didn't worry much about the outside world," said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, who said 16 major airports across the country have rail links. "Increasingly, airports are realizing they need to be in the game. They need to figure out how their employees will get there. They realize there's a competitive advantage for easy access to a much wider swath of the metro area."

In Denver, voters approved a sales tax increase last year to raise $700 million to build a 23.6-mile rail link to the airport. Supporters said it was needed because only a single, congested highway connected the city to its airport.

In 2001, Portland, Ore., extended a $125 million light-rail line to its airport using local and private dollars. Nearly a million people used the airport stop last year, according to the city's transportation authority.

The Dulles project, which planners had hoped would be completed by 2004, would extend Metro's Orange Line 23 miles from West Falls Church through Tysons Corner and along the Dulles Toll Road to the airport and into Loudoun County. The most recent target date is 2015.

Bennett said he envisions it not only serving fliers but also turning Dulles into an outer suburban employment and transportation hub similar to the Pentagon, which is served by Interstate 395, a Metro stop and several bus lines. The Pentagon is also a major transfer point for carpoolers.

Plans for the extension have gone slower than others across the country, in large part because the project -- estimated to cost $3.84 billion -- is one of the most expensive in the nation and relies on federal funding. Eliminating the need for federal money, as the authority proposes, would speed the process considerably by removing several layers of review and potential delay that have become common on most large transportation projects.

The idea for a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, for instance, first sprouted in 1988, and it took 11 years for the federal and local governments to pull funding and design plans together before construction began. The first of its two spans is expected to open in May, although the entire project, including highway interchanges, won't be finished until 2011.

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