By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2006
A plan for Metro trains to rumble under the heart of Tysons Corner through a tunnel was rejected by the project managers yesterday as too expensive, a decision that could further jeopardize Fairfax County's grand vision of remaking Tysons into an urban-style, pedestrian-friendly downtown for Northern Virginia.
The Virginia transportation commissioner and Metro officials had, in recent months, urged the project managers to use an advanced technology to build a tunnel under Tysons, saying it would be easier for the area to develop into a true urban center -- and simpler to build the project without aboveground disruptions -- if there weren't elevated tracks slicing across it.
But an estimate by contractors has found that the tunnel approach would cost at least $500 million more than the aboveground plan, which is itself threatening to exceed cost limits. A tunnel "does not appear to be affordable," said project spokeswoman Marcia McAllister.
Unless state and Metro officials can persuade the project managers to reconsider, most of the four-station line planned at Tysons would be elevated along Route 123 (Chain Bridge Road) and Route 7 (Leesburg Pike), a less aesthetically pleasing outcome. Tunnel backers said their plan would improve the appearance of Tysons Corner, the car-clogged, unattractive commercial center that developers and Fairfax officials envision turning into a thriving, walkable downtown.
On Wednesday, the project's managers announced that contractors had proposed saving money by cutting the number of rail cars on the line, the pedestrian bridges and some escalators for the four stations at Tysons. This would mean that riders would have to cross busy Leesburg Pike to reach the two stations to be built in its median.
Metro yesterday challenged the no-tunnel decision, saying more weight needed to be given to the long-term benefits of having rail below ground. A spokeswoman said the agency believes that contractors had "overstated" the difference in cost for tunneling.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said that it seemed "counterintuitive" that building above ground, with all its inconveniences, would be so much less expensive and that the estimate ideally would take into account the larger benefits of having rail below ground. Still, he said, if the contractors really believe that tunneling would cost hundreds of millions more, "I'm afraid it's not viable."
The tunnel debate underscored a recurring challenge for the project: how to preserve its broader ambitions in the face of cost constraints that are threatening some of the very aims used to justify the project's huge cost in the first place.
The project to extend a 23-mile line from West Falls Church to Dulles has, over time, come to be about much more than providing a direct rail link between the nation's capital and its largest airport. In addition to the transportation benefits, the project has been touted for its development potential in Northern Virginia's largest job center.
Supporters of the project say that despite the reductions, its central purpose remains in place. The priority must be getting the work done, they say, even if that means having to make some unwelcome cuts along the way.
"We have to balance out the issue of cost and amenities and deliver the core function," said Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer. "That's the process we're going through -- we pledged to hold costs down as much as possible, and that's our first responsibility."
At seemingly every turn in the rail project's development, though, the initial vision has been forced to confront realities. To save money last summer, the project's managers shortened the part of the line that would be below ground at Tysons to under half a mile, meaning that most of the line there would run on elevated tracks through the area. Money was also cut for the designs of the stations and columns holding up the track.
Then there was Wednesday's announcement about the rail cars and pedestrian bridges. Some backers say the bridges could be restored later by developers who want to build along the line. But Antonio Calabrese, an attorney for the company planning development at Tysons Corner Center, said yesterday that it would be unfair to pass that cost on to developers who are already helping pay for the project through a special tax district.
Pedestrian bridges, he said, are a big part of making transit work in Tysons and must be part of the overall package. "You can't pull out all the bridges and expect to have anywhere near the same level of ridership," he said. "It's nonsense to think, 'We'll just foist it on the private sector.' "
The contractors found yesterday that using a large tunnel-boring machine pioneered in Spain, although more efficient than conventional tunneling, would cost $823 million more than the $2 billion estimated for the first phase of the project, as now planned. The difference is smaller, about $500 million, if the features that are recommended to be cut, are included.
Those involved in the project are expected to meet today to review the contractors' estimates and discuss how to proceed. Daniel Scandling, a spokesman for Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who has been leading the push for the project, conveyed a reminder yesterday that the parties need to come to agreement quickly to keep the project on course.
"The congressman remains concerned about the cost and continues to push to ensure that the project stays on track and on time," he said.