Federal Officials Begin Audit of Dulles Rail Extension Project

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

The U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general is launching an audit of Virginia's proposed extension of Metrorail to Dulles International Airport, further heightening the already close scrutiny of the $4 billion project.

Although it is not unusual for the inspector general to audit large rail or highway projects, it is less common for the office to start monitoring a project so early, before construction has begun and with major design questions unanswered, federal transportation officials said.

In a letter sent last week to the Federal Transit Administration, the inspector general's office said such a "major project monitoring effort" was needed in this case because of the large amount of federal money expected to be spent on it: roughly $900 million.

Also justifying extra scrutiny, the letter stated, was Virginia's transferal of control of the project to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Because the authority leases its airports from the federal government, the letter states, the authority's role in the rail project gives further reason for the federal government to have a "vested interest in ensuring that the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project is completed efficiently and effectively."

Brian A. Dettelbach, a spokesman for the inspector general's office, added, "Given the significance of the project, we think it would be good to let everyone know upfront that we will be watching at the start rather than to come in later should there be any problems."

The audit presents yet another potential hurdle for the project, which calls for extending Metro from West Falls Church to Tysons Corner by 2011 and past Dulles into Loudoun County by 2015. The 23-mile project was supposed to be moving toward final federal approval later this year, but it is effectively on hold as Virginia officials decide whether the four-mile stretch through Tysons Corner should run below ground instead of on an elevated track as planned.

The contractors hired for the project say a tunnel would be prohibitively costly, but Fairfax County leaders, Tysons Corner landowners and some Metro officials say the contractors are overstating the cost. Even if a tunnel is somewhat more expensive, they argue, it would be worth it because it would contribute more to the vision for transforming Tysons into a walkable, urban-style hub.

Standing in the way of the tunnel is the requirement that transit projects with federal funding be cost-effective. Even if tunnel supporters find money at the state or local levels to cover the added cost of a tunnel, without seeking more help from Washington, there is a good chance the higher cost of the overall project would put it over federal limits for cost-effectiveness, which could imperil the $900 million federal share.

The inspector general's letter singles out cost-effectiveness as one of the factors that will be considered in the office's monitoring. But Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said Friday that he did not view the audit as an implicit warning to the state against a tunnel. He said he welcomed the audit and understood why the federal government felt the need for scrutiny.

"There are very significant federal interests in this corridor, and it's a responsibility of the inspector general to make sure those interests are protected," he said.

Late last month, Homer appointed a panel of independent engineers to study the tunnel option and report back to him by late July, when he is expected to make a final decision.

State officials had hoped that the approval process for the aboveground design could continue while the tunnel was being studied so the aboveground plan would still be on schedule if the state decided to stick with it. But in a recent letter to the state team overseeing the project, a federal transit official said her agency would not evaluate the plan until a decision is made on the tunnel.

It remains unclear whether the two-month pause for the tunnel study will result in an even longer delay. In any case, it will be difficult for the project to meet its timeline for getting federal approval by year's end, even if the aboveground plan prevails.

"It's effectively a timeout in the review process," Homer said. "It would not be fair to ask [federal officials] to devote scarce resources to evaluating this project if it might be a different project at the end of the process. We hoped there wouldn't be a delay, but the reality is that it will be a delay of at least 60 days."

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