By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006; A01
The leading congressional supporter of extending Metrorail to Dulles International Airport warned Virginia officials yesterday that an underground route through Tysons Corner could doom the project, casting plans for a subway tunnel into doubt.
In a strongly worded letter to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), the rail extension's top federal backer, and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said that a tunnel under Tysons, although preferable in theory, would delay the project and raise its cost, imperiling key federal funding and the entire 23-mile extension from West Falls Church.
Virginia "may very well be rolling the dice on the future of this project," Wolf and Davis wrote. "Simply put, we are concerned about the long-term viability of the project with any decision that could delay it."
Their warnings sent tremors yesterday, arriving just as Virginia appeared to be nearing a decision in favor of a tunnel instead of an elevated track in Tysons. Wolf has privately voiced misgivings about a tunnel but has held back from intervening publicly, saying it was up to state officials to decide on the extension's design.
For the project's chief federal supporter to weigh in so forcefully represented a setback for those pushing an underground approach, many involved in the project agreed. At stake, supporters say, is Fairfax County's vision for transforming Tysons into a walkable downtown, something tunnel proponents say will be hard to achieve with an unsightly elevated track. Tunnel proponents insisted the letter did not kill the proposal outright, because state officials may still opt to ignore Wolf.
What appears certain is that even more time and discussion will be needed before a decision is made, said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). Wolf "has real concerns that have to be realistically addressed," said Connolly, who has been among those urging consideration of a tunnel. "Under no circumstance can anything we're doing jeopardize this project."
In a short letter responding to Wolf and Davis, Kaine assured them that Virginia was taking their concerns into account and will decide the issue by the end of August. "This project cannot advance to the next phase without the concurrence of all our partners," he wrote.
The back-and-forth exposed the growing rifts and uncertainty in the $4 billion project, which was supposed to break ground early next year. Proponents of putting the four-mile Tysons stretch underground, including Fairfax officials and Tysons landowners, say a tunnel would be less disruptive during construction. Critics, including the project's contractors, say that a tunnel would be too costly and that switching designs would cause major delays.
Today, Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer is to receive the results of a two-month study of the tunnel question by a panel of independent engineers. Project sources say all indications have been that the panel, Homer and Kaine have been leaning in favor of a tunnel.
In their letter, Wolf and Davis noted that switching to a tunnel in Tysons just months before construction was to begin would require reviews that could delay the rail line by as much as two years. Under existing plans, rail was to reach Tysons by 2011 and Dulles by 2015.
A delay would mean putting at risk at least some of the $900 million the federal government is expected to provide, because that money might not be available in later years, Wolf and Davis wrote. It would mean making commuters wait longer for public transit in the Dulles corridor, and construction costs are rising.
"With a project of this magnitude, every day of delay translates into added costs," they wrote. "For the Northern Virginia commuter looking for traffic relief today, every day of delay also translates into a deteriorating quality of life."
The congressmen also emphasized that any increase in the project's cost will likely place it in violation of cost-effectiveness standards that federal transit officials use to evaluate projects. Even if tunnel supporters can find extra money from state or local sources, the federal government is likely to withdraw its $900 million if it deems the project's overall cost excessive. "The bottom line is this: Northern Virginia cannot afford to lose this project," Wolf and Davis wrote.
Tysons landowners and other supporters of a tunnel said the congressmen's concerns were understandable but overstated. They said that the necessary reviews for a tunnel could likely be done in six months at most and that a tunnel might cost no more, given the advantage of being able to work round-the-clock. The cost also could be lowered if the state decides to re-bid the contract now held by Bechtel Corp. and Washington Group International Inc., they said.
Even if a tunnel did cost more, its backers said there should be a way around the cost-effectiveness standards. It should count for something, they said, that the federal government is no longer being asked to help pay for the second half of the project. That phase is to be mostly covered by Dulles Toll Road revenue collected by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the entity slated to assume control of the project later this year.
Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), a Metro board member and tunnel proponent, said that the congressmen were right to raise concerns but that the tunnel option is being considered this late only because the project's overseers failed to weigh all options years ago.
"I always welcome tough questions, but the state has been looking at tunneling because, for some reason, other tough questions weren't asked earlier," he said.