By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; B01
Virginia officials are considering a proposal from contractors allied with a major Tysons Corner landowner to take over construction of at least half of the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport, a prospect that threatens to further delay the project.
The state has a no-bid "public-private partnership" with a Bechtel Corp. and Washington Group International Inc. consortium, which has done extensive work over the past two years in preparing to build the 23-mile line from West Falls Church. But the state revealed yesterday that as part of its consideration of switching to a tunnel instead of an elevated track for the Tysons part of the line, it is now weighing a proposal by a group linked with WestGroup, a major Tysons landowner and tunnel supporter.
The revelation of the competing proposal injected additional uncertainty into the $4 billion project, which is hung up on the question of whether the four-mile Tysons portion of the line should be built above or below ground. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is planning to announce that decision by the end of this month. At stake, say tunnel supporters, is Fairfax County's vision of transforming Tysons into a vibrant, walkable downtown, which they say would be hard to achieve with an elevated track.
Tunnel backers, including Tysons landowners and Fairfax officials, have been urging the state to rethink its deal with the Bechtel group, which has criticized a tunnel as too costly. By re-bidding the whole project, tunnel supporters say, the state could get an affordable price for a line with a tunnel.
But going with the rival proposal probably would mean a time-consuming process to end the existing partnership and to re-bid the project. The state is facing warnings from the project's top federal backer, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), that the tunnel option threatens to imperil $900 million in federal funding and delay the extension, which was to be done by 2015.
Yesterday, the Federal Transit Administration offered its own words of caution. In a public statement, the agency said it is "important to note that should [Virginia] choose to make significant changes to its original plan, including building a tunnel, [the agency] will need to make new, additional examinations" of the project.
The revelation of the rival proposal came in a briefing yesterday by the head of a panel of engineers that studied the tunnel question at the state's request. The panel has concluded that a tunnel would be preferable and would cost about $250 million more than an elevated route -- less than the Bechtel group estimated.
The panel's chairman, Potomac engineer Robert S. O'Neil, said the panel's tunnel estimate was based on a proposal submitted to the state three weeks ago by a group consisting of WestGroup, Bethesda-based Clark Construction Group LLC, Lane Construction Corp. of Meriden, Conn., and Dragados, a Spanish company that specializes in the large-bore tunneling being considered for Tysons.
Dragados has previously proposed to build the tunnel, but this was its first offer -- together with other contractors -- to take over the whole first phase of the line instead of acting as a subcontractor to Bechtel.
The group said it could build the first phase for $2 billion, a price the engineering panel revised upward to $2.5 billion.
Based on that price, the panel concluded that a tunnel was worth it, because it would cause less disruption during construction and offer countless "intangible benefits" over the long term, O'Neil said. The reviews necessary for switching to a tunnel could be done within a year, he said.
It is possible that the state could decide on a tunnel but retain the Bechtel group, with it subcontracting to a tunnel builder like Dragados. Deputy Transportation Secretary Scott Kasprowicz yesterday declined to say how seriously the state is considering re-bidding the project or how long that would take.
There is some historic irony in WestGroup's involvement with the rival contractor group. The landowner initially was part of the partnership with Bechtel, before dropping out two years ago amid concerns about the propriety of having a major Tysons landowner directly involved in the project.
WestGroup spokesman Mark Lowham played down the company's role in the rival team's new offer, saying WestGroup had been in talks with the contractors but was not an official part of the team.
"We understand that other contractors have taken a look at [the project] and are pleased, because it's in everyone's best interest to take a second look," he said.