Tysons Landowners Could Cover Cost Of Metro Tunnel

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

Amid indications that Virginia is leaning toward building a Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport below ground through Tysons Corner, Fairfax County officials and Tysons landowners are discussing a higher tax on Tysons properties to pay for a tunnel.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer are on the verge of deciding whether to build a tunnel or elevated track for the four-mile Tysons stretch of the 23-mile extension to Dulles. Tomorrow, they are to receive the results of a two-month study of the question by a panel of independent engineers.

The decision has emerged as a defining moment for the $4 billion project and for the future of Tysons Corner. Fairfax officials, Tysons landowners and some Metro officials say a tunnel would be less disruptive during construction and would contribute far more to the county's hopes of transforming Tysons into a walkable, urban-style hub. But others, including the project's contractors, say a tunnel would be prohibitively expensive and would delay the extension.

Sources involved in the project say signals from Richmond increasingly suggest that the state is leaning toward the tunnel option. Anticipating that outcome, Fairfax officials, Tysons landowners and others involved in the project are turning to the next question: how to cover the additional cost, which some estimates have put at $200 million or more.

The funding option getting the most attention, at least for now, is to increase the tax being paid by landowners along the Tysons portion of the line, who are contributing $400 million to the project through a special tax district. The landowners -- the owners of shopping malls, office buildings and car dealerships, among others -- agreed to the contribution partly because Fairfax zoning rules will allow many of them to build more densely once rail is in place.

The landowners are likely to gain even more from a tunnel, because an elevated track would be less aesthetically pleasing and would limit development along the route. That is why they are a natural candidate to contribute even more toward a below-ground approach, said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D).

"Some of the landowners have been great proponents of a tunnel, so in our discussions back and forth, there's been some talk about the fact that if you're such a big proponent of a tunnel, you have to be prepared to bear some of the burden as well," he said.

Whether landowners agree to pay more toward the project remains to be seen. But executives at WestGroup, one of the three biggest landowners at Tysons and a leading tunnel proponent, made clear that they were open to the proposal.

"What's most important is that the project is done right," said Keith Turner, a WestGroup senior vice president. "There are several avenues [for funding], one of which is coming back to the landowners. I certainly think it's one possibility."

A higher tax on landowners could take several forms. The existing tax district could be revised so that everyone is paying at a higher rate, but there is also talk of creating a second district that would apply only to those with land closest to the four planned stations at Tysons.

The argument for the second approach is that those nearest the stations would be granted the biggest increases in allowed building density. The Lerner Co. has approval to build a half-dozen more towers near Tysons II Galleria if rail comes to the area, and Macerich Co. plans to add office buildings and 1,250 housing units around Tysons Corner Center.

Macerich East Development president John Anderson said he was also open to paying more for a tunnel.

"We'd need to see the details . . . but . . . we would certainly give a tax district change our best consideration," he said.

Finding additional money from the other entities already contributing would not be easy. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is in the process of taking control of the project, is slated to pay more than half of its cost using revenue from the Dulles Toll Road, and paying even more could mean unpopular toll increases. The federal government is unlikely to offer more than the $900 million it is expected to contribute. As it is, the project is at risk of losing that funding if the federal government deems the overall cost in excess of its cost-effectiveness standards.

Some tunnel proponents argue that a tunnel would cost no more than an elevated track if the state was willing to break off its existing contract, a no-bid "public-private partnership" with Bechtel and Washington Group International, and then competitively bid the project. The contracting group's director, Roger Picard, rebutted this suggestion yesterday, saying that the partnership offers efficiencies beyond what conventional bidding would provide and that redoing the contract would cause delays, since "we have a team already in place with knowledge of every detail of this project."

Scott Kasprowicz, a deputy state transportation secretary, declined to comment on whether the state is considering rebidding the project. "We'll look at all options once we have" the engineers' report, he said.

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