Tunnel Back On Table for Dulles Rail

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A proposal to build a tunnel under Tysons Corner for the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport has regained momentum but has created a major rift among the partners that threatens to delay the $4 billion project.

Last month, contractors ruled out a tunnel as too expensive compared with an elevated track, but others involved in the 23-mile extension say that the builders overstated the cost to avoid sharing the job with tunnel-building companies. The tunnel's proponents have succeeded in reviving its prospects, but time is running out for a change in plans, with applications for federal funding due next month and construction scheduled to begin this year.

At stake are the look and feel of one of the region's largest transportation upgrades as well as the future of Tysons Corner, the traffic-clogged commercial hub of Northern Virginia, which Fairfax County officials envision turning into a vibrant urban center. County leaders, Tysons landowners and Metrorail officials say that this transformation would be much easier with a tunnel and that tunnel construction would be less disruptive for motorists.

A consortium of the engineering giant Bechtel and Washington Group International that has been hired for the job said last month that running a tunnel under all of Tysons Corner, although more convenient and aesthetically appealing, would increase the existing $2.3 billion cost for the first half of the project -- which relies mostly on aboveground construction -- by more than $800 million.

But the contractors' estimate counted millions of dollars in fees unrelated to the cost of building the tunnel, including $87 million in additional profit and overhead, even though the tunnel would be built mostly by other companies. The Spanish company proposing the tunnel and its Washington area partners are adamant that they could build it for little more than the aboveground cost.

Worried about the validity of the contractors' numbers, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted Monday to urge Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to order an independent cost estimate for a tunnel.

"We only have one shot to do this project right, and for me that means serving Tysons with underground rail," said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who is also on the Metro board. "Sixty years from now, our excuses for not doing the right thing today won't hold water."

On the other side are the state team overseeing the project and the lead contractors, who have the job under a public-private partnership outside the normal bidding process. They say that building underground will be far more expensive and that switching gears at this point could delay the project by one or two years. The line is scheduled to be built through Tysons by 2011 and to Dulles by 2015.

"We'd love to do a tunnel, but it's just more expensive, unfortunately," said Roger Picard, the consortium's project director, who helped build the rail tunnel beneath the English Channel.

The contractors have been backed up by Sam Carnaggio, the engineer overseeing the project for the state, who has estimated the price difference at $500 million and who said that the tunnel is viable only if "money and time are not considerations." Otherwise, he wrote, "I recommend that we cease consideration of [the tunnel] immediately" to stay on schedule.

Caught in the middle, and faced with having to make the final decision, is the state transportation secretary, Pierce R. Homer. Last month, the state handed over the project to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, but the authority has made it clear that it doesn't want responsibility for making the final call. A spokeswoman said the authority is open to delaying the project to consider the tunnel further.

Homer said that the tunnel remains on the table but that a decision needs to be made soon. The project team must send its latest plans to the federal government next month if it wants to secure $900 million this year. "This is a large and complex undertaking, and I don't believe there is a definitive answer yet with regard to cost," he said.

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