By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006
In the debate over whether to build a Metro extension to Dulles International Airport below or above ground in Tysons Corner, tunnel supporters have voiced a recurring argument: Even if a tunnel costs a couple of hundred million dollars more, it would be worth it in the long run. A region as wealthy as Northern Virginia, they say, should be able to find the extra money to "do the project right."
Standing in the way, however, is a nagging reality that has been somewhat overlooked in the debate: In spending more than planned on the project, even if the money is raised locally, officials risk losing the backing of the federal government, which is being counted on for almost a quarter of the project's $4 billion cost.
That's because the Federal Transit Administration has strict rules on a project's "cost-effectiveness" that are based on overall cost, not on how much the federal government is being asked to pay. Critics say the policy discourages cities and states from investing what they believe is necessary for a project's success, but federal officials say the standard is needed to keep projects from becoming boondoggles, which reduces public support for transit.
To tunnel opponents, it means that even if the project's overseers seek not a single additional dime in federal money to pay for a tunnel, their switch to a more costly plan could mean losing the $900 million they have been counting on from the federal government -- a loss that would most likely doom the project.
"The project team would support a tunnel under Tysons Corner to avoid the traffic congestion, but the project needs to be cost-effective and comply with the FTA criteria," said Sam Carnaggio, director of the state team that has been managing the project, and who recently recommended against the tunnel as too costly.
The FTA affirmed the importance of its cost-effectiveness standard in deciding which projects to approve, saying through a spokesman that it "takes seriously its oversight role in ensuring the most prudent investment of limited federal dollars."
Underlying the debate over federal cost-effectiveness ratings, as obscure as it may seem, is the fate of one of the region's largest transportation projects in years, as well as the future of Tysons, which Fairfax County officials hope to transform into a vibrant quasi-city.
Proponents of building the four-mile stretch under Tysons say that this transformation would be easier to achieve with a tunnel instead of an elevated track, and that building underground would also be far less disruptive for motorists.
They question estimates by the project's contractors that a tunnel would cost as much as $800 million more than an elevated track, suggesting that contractors are overstating the price to avoid having to share the project with a tunnel-building firm. Metro officials, who favor a tunnel, estimate that it would cost at most a couple hundred million dollars more.
But tunnel skeptics counter that even if the price difference is smaller, the federal cost-effectiveness rules present an insurmountable hurdle. As it is, they say, the $2.1 billion first phase of the project, through Tysons to Reston, is just barely meeting the cost-effectiveness standards. The standards are based primarily on how much travel time a project is expected to save for riders per dollar spent.
"I don't know how [a tunnel] works within the formula," said Roger Picard, the engineer leading the consortium of contractors hired for the project. "Given . . . the strict criteria, there's no way. The tunnel is a good solution if it's cost-effective, but it's not."
Tunnel proponents counter that the skeptics are exaggerating the threat of a loss of federal support. It remains possible, they say, that a tunnel could cost no more than $2.1 billion, the same as the above-ground cost. Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer is assembling a panel to provide a new estimate before he makes the final decision on a tunnel.
But even if a tunnel is found to cost more, its supporters say, there are ways to satisfy the federal government.
They note that the Washington airports authority is in the process of assuming control of the project from the state and that it is possible that the authority might decide to combine the two phases of the project into one. That, they say, could conceivably change the cost-effectiveness equation enough to allow for a tunnel. Tunnel skeptics reject this, noting that the second half of the project is expected to generate fewer riders than the first.
Tunnel supporters also note that it is not unheard of for major infrastructure projects to proceed despite not being deemed cost-effective. "There's a way around that sort of legislation. It's not drafted to thwart an effective project like this," said Donna P. Shafer, a senior vice president with the WestGroup, a major Tysons landowner. "I know from other instances that there have been ways to deal with it."
Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said he hoped the region's congressional delegation would make the argument that investing extra money for a tunnel would pay off in ways not captured in the federal formula, such as allowing for better use of the above-ground space at Tysons. Congress recently directed the FTA to take land use into greater account in its formula, but those changes probably will take a year or two to take shape.
"How do you measure the immediate effectiveness and value of what is basically the opportunity to totally redo Tysons Corner?" asked Kauffman, who is also on the Metro board.
"I hope congressional intercession could free us to do the right thing."
Tunnel skeptics say this is an unrealistic expectation, given that Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) already intervened on the project's behalf to keep it from having to meet even tougher cost-effectiveness standards introduced last year.
Wolf declined to comment, saying through a spokesman that the tunnel is the state's call.
Jeffrey Booth, a Washington lawyer who heads up a nationwide group of officials who deal with the FTA, said that when it comes to mass transit, Congress takes the FTA's ratings very seriously, even with the inevitable lobbying.
"Appropriations committees have focused very much on cost effectiveness," he said. "In the decisions they've made about projects to fund, they've focused on that measure."