Tunnel Decision Delayed 2 Months

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer announced yesterday that he is enlisting a panel of engineers to advise him on whether the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport should run above or below ground in Tysons Corner, a move that will delay the contentious decision by at least two months.

The panel, to be selected and headed by the American Society of Civil Engineers, will have 60 days to evaluate the competing proposals for the four-mile Tysons portion of the 23-mile extension to Dulles. There is deep disagreement among the many players on the project over whether it would be affordable to tunnel under Tysons, which most agree would otherwise be preferable to an elevated track.

The announcement of the panel, and the accompanying delay, underscores to what extent the $4 billion project has become hung up on the tunnel question. Under the project's timeline, contractors and state officials are supposed to be putting the final touches on the existing plan, which calls for an elevated track through Tysons, with an eye toward getting final federal approval late this year.

But now, even as federal officials review the latest filing on the aboveground plans, the state will take until mid-July to consider an entirely different approach -- a delay the state decided was warranted to ensure that the right decision was made, Deputy Transportation Secretary Scott Kasprowicz said yesterday.

"We decided that two months was the best combination of appropriate speed yet also appropriate thoroughness to get this resolved," he said.

Tunnel opponents, who include the contractors on the project and the state team overseeing its day-to-day management, say that the feature would be prohibitively expensive -- adding as much as $800 million to the price tag. Even if Tysons landowners or local officials come up with more money, the federal government would likely rule that it is too costly and withdraw the roughly $900 million it is expected to put in, they say.

Tunnel advocates, a group that includes Fairfax County leaders, major Tysons landowners and several top Metro officials, say an underground route would be less disruptive during construction and would draw more riders. Most importantly, they say, it would do much more to advance Fairfax's plans of turning Tysons into a walkable, quasi-urban hub. They question the contractors' estimates, saying that the tunnel is at most $200 million more.

The final decision rests with Homer. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is taking control of the project, but that won't be official until later this year. Homer had been expected to convene some kind of advisory group to assist him in making the decision, but what form it would take had been the subject of considerable behind-the-scenes debate.

Fairfax supervisors had urged him to get a truly independent opinion, but others argued that it was hopeless to try to find tunneling experts not involved in the project and that the secretary should simply form a working group of members representing the many entities involved. Others argued that such a group would be unlikely to come to any consensus. There was also talk of a group combining outside engineers with ones involved in the project.

In the end, the state decided that it was best to go with an independent group and turned to the engineering society for help, Kasprowicz said. He said the group would be free to consult with members of the project team and would have access to all information already assembled.

Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who led the way in urging an outside review, cheered Homer's announcement. "I'm very encouraged that the secretary has chosen the truly independent group and not a roundup of the usual suspects. This is the best shot we all have at a believable cost estimate, and it's a necessary action to preserve faith in the overall project," he said. "On a project designed to last a century, 60 days is well worth the time."

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