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.
The plans for the rail extension call for it to run underground for about 2,100 feet of the four-mile stretch through Tysons, with the rest of the line running on an elevated track with an average height of 36 feet and with all four stations above ground.
But late last year, Metro officials and Homer asked the contractors to take a closer look at tunneling through all of Tysons using a machine that can dig a hole large enough for two pairs of tracks on top of each other. The machine, which has built tunnels in Europe and Southeast Asia but not in the United States, is expensive. But its ability to churn nonstop is more efficient than conventional "drill and blast" tunneling.
Dragados, the Spanish company, told the contractors that it could build the tunnel and stations affordably enough to keep the first half of the rail extension through Tysons to Reston near the $2 billion limit that the project team believes it needs to win federal funding. The rest of the cost is coming from Dulles Toll Road revenues and a tax on landowners along the line.
Under the contractors' analysis, the tunnel would cost far more. They tacked on $115 million in contingency, saying the tunnel designs were in such an early stage that there were bound to be unforeseen changes. The contractors also added $87 million in overhead and profit for themselves, which they said represents the same share of the total cost that they seek in the existing plan.
The tunnel's "hard" costs alone were $467 million more than the aboveground option's, the contractors said. The tunnel wouldn't save that much in land acquisition because seven aboveground ventilation buildings would be needed. And the Dragados proposal understated the cost of the tunnel's concrete lining, the contractors said.
On top of that, the contractors said, the tunnel wouldn't be as attractive as believed -- the station platform's ceilings would be lower than in most Metro stations. Trucks removing rocks and dirt would affect traffic.
The tunnel's proponents dispute almost all of these points, saying that it seems clear from the contractors' study that they opposed the tunnel from the outset.
"They just took [the tunnel study] as something they were told to do and they had to do and then went about it that way," said James R. Haggins, Metro's director of construction, who puts the difference in cost at less than $200 million.
The contingency fees aren't needed because Dragados knows what it's getting into, said Walter Mergelsberg, who heads the local office of the Dr. Sauer Group, an engineering firm working with Dragados. The profits for the contractors aren't justified, tunnel backers say, because the tunnel will be built separately from the rest of the line. The tunnel studies could be done in months, not years, tunnel proponents say. And the benefit of the digging machine's ability to work around the clock would be incalculable, they say.
In the long term, supporters say, the tunnel would be more durable than an elevated track and easier to use in winter and would allow for more development.
"It's more attractive, it's safer and more pedestrian friendly," said Donna P. Schafer, a senior vice president with WestGroup, a major Tysons landowner. "We owe it to the public to look at it and be absolutely certain that the only way to be on budget is to do it above grade."
Some tunnel proponents are so irked at the contractors' tunnel estimates that they are raising the possibility of breaking the project into parts, with the contractors no longer controlling the Tysons section.
Picard, the consortium's director, said the contractors have an obligation not to promise to complete the project for less than it might cost. "Everyone's throwing stones at us," he said. "I'd love for a tunnel to be the solution, but they just don't have the money."