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Dulles Rail Project Faces Cuts as Costs Swell

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006

The contractors on the project to extend Metrorail to Dulles International Airport are proposing to slash several key features -- including the number of rail cars and pedestrian bridges for those boarding in Tysons Corner -- to rein in a new spike in costs, a project director said yesterday.

The contractors' latest estimate for the first phase of the extension, through Tysons Corner to Reston, has risen from $1.8 billion to $2 billion. That is the absolute maximum the project's managers believe it can cost and still win approval from the federal government, which is footing half of the bill. To keep within that ceiling, contractors have cut from their estimate several features that had been deemed untouchable, said Sam Carnaggio, the project director for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Carnaggio said it is possible that a second estimate to be obtained next month from an independent engineer could come in slightly lower and that a case could yet be made for reinstating one or more of the cuts.

But with time running out before the project's plans need to go to the federal government in May, and with the new estimates bumping up against the $2 billion limit, he said, the many players involved in the rail extension need to make some tough calls or risk seeing the project run off course.

"We have to be prepared to say what's important and what's not," Carnaggio said. "We have to push the partners to make some hard decisions."

The higher estimates and proposed cuts are the latest financial obstacles in the path of a project that supporters see as transforming Tysons Corner, reducing Fairfax County's brutal traffic congestion and easing access to Dulles.

The 23-mile project is to proceed in two phases: a stretch running from Falls Church through Tysons to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, scheduled to open in 2011, and a final stretch running through Dulles into Loudoun County, to open in 2015. The cost of the first leg, initially pegged at $1.5 billion, is to be split three ways, with the federal government paying half, the state paying a quarter via toll collections on the Dulles Toll Toad, and Fairfax paying a quarter based primarily on revenue from a special tax district on Tysons landowners.

The contractors are Bechtel and Washington Group International, working under the name Dulles Transit Partners.

After estimates for the project surged to $2.4 billion last summer, the project's managers settled on several steep cuts, including shortening the portion of the line to run in a tunnel beneath Tysons and instead running most of the stretch on an elevated track; bringing above ground the one Tysons station that was to be below ground; and simplifying designs of the stations and columns supporting the elevated portions.

The latest price surge is driven by an increase in subcontractors' costs, in the value of the property needed along the line, in the cost of building materials and in the costs of managing the project, Carnaggio said. Last summer's cuts left relatively little else to shave from the project, he said, and the latest proposed reductions, which also include several station escalators, are sure to upset one or more of the partners.

Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who envisions the new line turning Tysons into an "urban" downtown, has been adamant about the need for pedestrian bridges to help riders access stations at Tysons that will be in the median of Leesburg Pike; without the bridges, which cost about $36 million, riders would have to cross the busy road on foot, probably reducing ridership.

Similarly, Metro will probably fight the proposal to cut 20 train cars from the 64 that had been proposed for the line, saving $62 million.

Patty Nicoson, president of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association, a nonprofit group organized by the project's boosters, said she hopes that the pedestrian bridges and other features, if dropped, could be restored later by developers seeking to build near the rail line. The most important thing, she said, is that the partners on the project settle on the needed cuts quickly and move the project along.

"They're going to have to roll up their shirtsleeves and decide what's really important to keep in or address at a later date," she said. "We should go with a skeleton system now and add to it in the future. That's not ideal, but it's realistic."

The new estimate arrives as the project's managers are awaiting two other crucial developments. An announcement is imminent on whether it would be cheaper to radically overhaul the project and use new technology to bore a tunnel all the way beneath Tysons, thereby saving the headache of building the elevated train along its busy streets. The downside is that this approach, even if feasible, would require months more of planning.

Also awaited is a decision from Richmond on a proposal by the authority that operates Dulles to assume control of the toll road, which is now run by the state, and to use toll revenue to cover the federal government's share of the second phase of the project.

Longtime critics of the Dulles extension said the latest spike in cost estimates confirmed their position that the line is an inefficient way to expand transit in the Dulles corridor, which they say could be done more easily with bus rapid transit.

"They never factored in all the costs, even though they knew full well they'd have to" eventually, said Bruce Bennett, a retired high-tech salesman in the Reston area. "I think they've fudged on the cost of the whole deal."


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