By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006
As the Washington airports authority takes control of the extension of Metrorail to Dulles International Airport, some Fairfax County officials and others involved in the project are expressing concerns that the rush to the runway could leave a casualty in its path: their dreams of a remade Tysons Corner.
The ambitious rail project has long tried to balance two goals: speeding access to the airport and transforming Tysons from a car-clogged jumble into a vibrant, walkable downtown for Northern Virginia. Those invested in Tysons' overhaul are now hoping that the airports authority, which is focused on getting the line to Dulles, will show itself as committed to Fairfax's vision for Tysons -- even if that means higher costs or a longer wait.
"When [the airports authority] first decided to throw their hat in the ring, I said, 'What are you doing about Tysons?' and they said Tysons would be the same" as the current plans call for, said Fairfax Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), whose district includes Tysons. "Well, of course, now . . . they're scratching their heads and saying, 'We have to do something different and get costs to level.' We're concerned."
Under its agreement with the state, signed last week, the airports authority will take over the Dulles Toll Road and use the revenue to ensure completion of the 23-mile Metro extension from West Falls Church to Dulles. Proponents have hailed the deal for increasing the odds that the project will be done by 2015, as scheduled.
The authority's president, James E. Bennett, dismissed worries about the agency's commitment to the Tysons part of the line, saying there would not be any fundamental changes. After all, he noted, Tysons will serve as a major source of airport passengers. That said, he added that the authority and others involved in the $4 billion project had "difficult decisions" ahead.
"Our mission is to build a functional rail system that meets the needs of the users, but it has to be done realistically," he said. "You have constraints."
The tension between the project's two aims is plain to see on a map of the planned line: Bringing it through Tysons means diverting it from its route along the Dulles Airport Access Road and adding time to the trip to the airport. Building four stations in close succession at Tysons drives up the project's cost and length.
Early in the discussions on bringing rail to Dulles, many argued for having a single stop at the edge of Tysons and running an internal monorail from there. But officials decided that running Metro through Tysons would boost Fairfax's efforts to turn it into a thriving quasi-city where people can live, work and play, all without getting in a car.
The Tysons route brought backing from its major landowners, who agreed to a special tax district to raise $400 million toward the project. It also, however, has brought with it demands for extra features, with supporters arguing that Tysons will be transformed only if rail is "done right." There's talk about designing the stations so they are more attractive than the usual Metro station and about tunneling the line underneath Tysons, a more aesthetically pleasing option.
Already, cost constraints have put some hoped-for features at risk. The budget for station design was cut last summer. Last month, the contractors recommended cutting the pedestrian bridges to the stations and said the tunnel option is too expensive.
It remains to be seen whether the authority will reconsider those reductions -- or propose additional ones.
What is clear from their statements so far is that authority officials are not as focused on the Tysons aspect of the project as are Fairfax officials, who have convened a 35-person task force solely to envision changes to Tysons after the arrival of rail.
"Our focus is as it has always been, to have the [Dulles] corridor developed and fulfill rail to Dulles," said Edward S. Faggen, the authority's general counsel. "Clearly, the line is going to serve the intervening points -- Tysons being one of them."
Added Bennett: "We're constructing the rail. Fairfax is dealing with the development issues around the rail."
To some, the emphasis on getting the project built implies an impatience for quibbling over details, particularly at Tysons. John McGranahan, an attorney for those in the special tax district, said that if the authority cuts too much from the Tysons part of the project, it could lose the support of the landowners.
That support "assumed not just the route through Tysons but a certain level of design," he said. "As they start changing that design they're putting that revenue at risk. I hope the authority understands and recognizes that.
"I think they do, but they could find themselves with big problems if they don't."
Others at Tysons are more upbeat about the takeover, saying it will benefit Tysons simply because the authority's experience bodes well for the extension actually getting built. The success of Dulles has depended too much on the growth of Tysons for the authority to neglect that part of the line, they say.
"Tysons' future has always been linked to the airport, and vice versa," said John Gerber, a senior vice president with WestGroup, a major Tysons landowner. "I don't see why that would change."
Others are cheering the takeover, though, precisely because they see it reestablishing the rail line as a transportation project, not a land-use one.
"Everyone wants enhancements, but the bottom line is, that adds costs and delays," said Jeffrey J. Fairfield, president of the Committee for Dulles, a business group.
"They want a tool for economic development, which is totally understandable. But the permanent goal is to get a rail line to the airport."