Tysons Metro Tunnel Buoyed

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006

A panel of experts commissioned by Virginia officials to study the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport has strongly recommended that the tracks at Tysons Corner run underground, said local officials briefed yesterday.

The group of engineers also concluded that a tunnel would not be prohibitively more expensive than an elevated track, the local officials said. Those involved with the project had expected the panel to lean toward an underground approach for the four-mile stretch through Tysons. But Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly, one of the officials privately briefed, said he was surprised at the strength of the group's support for a tunnel. Connolly (D) favors a tunnel.

The panel's findings, to be released Monday, raise the stakes in the $4 billion project. Tunnel supporters say the transformation of Tysons into a walkable, vibrant downtown for Fairfax depends on putting the rail line underground rather than on a 30-foot-high track.

Critics say that a tunnel would be too expensive and that switching designs now, when construction is months away from beginning, would cause expensive delays. The project's chief federal backer, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), warned Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) this week that switching to a tunnel could imperil federal funding and doom the entire 23-mile line.

Kaine and Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer have said they would rely on the findings of the panel, which was convened at their request by the American Society of Civil Engineers, when they make their decision next month. With the panel's strong support for the tunnel, it is now up to Kaine and Homer to decide whether to forge ahead with it despite the concerns of Wolf and others.

Deputy Transportation Secretary Scott Kasprowicz, who has been involved in the issue, declined to confirm the panel's tunnel endorsement yesterday. He said state officials would consider Wolf's criticisms as they reviewed the panel's findings.

The state must also decide whether to keep the project's contractors, a consortium of Bechtel Corp. and Washington Group International Inc., which have said the tunnel approach is too expensive. As part of its study, the engineering panel reviewed an estimate for a rail line with a tunnel presented by a contractor linked with WestGroup, a major Tysons landowner and tunnel supporter. It is unclear how much the panel relied on that proposal in recommending a tunnel.

According to those briefed yesterday, the panel concluded that it probably wouldn't be necessary to do a full environmental review of the tunnel plan, which could take as long as two years. The panel also concluded that with a tunnel, the first phase of the project, through Tysons, would cost about $2.5 billion, those briefed said.

It would cost about $2.1 billion with an elevated track. But that estimate, done months ago, has been rising with every week of delay, and contractors now suggest that the cost is closer to $2.3 billion.

The panel's cost estimate does not include other benefits that officials say would come with a tunnel -- which the panel tried to quantify -- such as the tax revenue the state and county would lose by shutting down Tysons roads for above-ground construction.

A $2.5 billion cost for the first phase would require raising about $400 million in additional money. Fairfax officials have been talking with major Tysons landowners about the possibility of raising the tax on Tysons property to pay for it.

One of Wolf's biggest concerns is the federal government's strict cost standards for transit projects, which grade them on their overall cost, not just on the amount Washington is asked to provide. Even if project backers find extra money from state or local sources, if the cost grows too high, they risk losing the $900 million the federal government is expected to provide, he says.

But the panel concluded that the cost difference between a tunnel and elevated track was so small that the project could win approval from federal transit officials, said the officials who were briefed. The federal cost formula is flexible enough to take into account other factors, such as the greater longevity of a tunnel vs. an elevated track, the panel decided.

The cost difference of a tunnel was "manageable enough that from their point of view, it would not cause [transit officials] to have a coronary occlusion," Connolly said.

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