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Correction to This Article
An Aug. 20 Metro article about the debate over whether to build a Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport below Tysons Corner misstated the size of the Tysons area. It is about 1,700 acres, not 17,000.

Rail Tunnel Debate Raises Larger Issue

A woman crosses Route 7 near Tysons Corner Center. To become a true downtown, both supporters and detractors of a rail tunnel say, Tysons would need to replace its congestion-creating office park loops with a grid of streets.
A woman crosses Route 7 near Tysons Corner Center. To become a true downtown, both supporters and detractors of a rail tunnel say, Tysons would need to replace its congestion-creating office park loops with a grid of streets. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2006

Virginia leaders who are nearing a decision on whether to build a Metrorail line below ground through Tysons Corner face a question that goes well beyond disputes over cost estimates and construction timelines.

Is Fairfax County's hope of turning Tysons from a car-clogged, outsize office park into a vibrant, walkable downtown for Northern Virginia achievable?

The debate over whether to build a tunnel or an elevated track is partly tied to this vision and whether trying to achieve it is worth risking the extension of rail service to Washington Dulles International Airport.

The main argument for building the $4 billion rail line underground for its four-mile Tysons stretch is that it would enhance Fairfax's efforts to create a pedestrian-friendly downtown, similar to what Arlington has achieved along a Metro line in its Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Tunnel proponents say that this, combined with less disruption during construction, justifies the extra cost, which they estimate at $200 million, in addition to a year's delay.

The tunnel's critics do not dispute that an underground line would be preferable, but they argue that the extra costs and time would be more than the tunnel's backers say. The extension's top congressional sponsors warn that delays and cost escalations associated with a tunnel could imperil the 23-mile line to Dulles.

More broadly, the tunnel's critics express doubts that Tysons is capable of the metamorphosis Fairfax leaders seek. Skeptics say Tysons might be too far from the District and too well-established as a suburban commercial center to duplicate Arlington's success.

In the skeptics' view, it seems foolhardy to risk the rail extension -- scheduled to reach Tysons by 2011 and Dulles by 2015 -- in reaching for an elusive urban vision. It would be nice, skeptics say, if Leesburg Pike (Route 7) one day became a lovely boulevard rather than a strip of auto dealers, but given how unlikely that seems, wouldn't it be better to have an elevated track in the pike's median rather than no rail at all?

David A. Ross, president of Atlantic Realty Cos. Inc., which owns a million square feet of commercial space at Tysons, is among those who say the priority should be getting rail of any sort to Tysons as quickly as possible.

"I hope the focus is [to] find the most efficient way to make this work," he said. "The goal is that [the rail line] needs to get in place, and it needs to get in place soon."

There are reasons for skepticism. To become a true downtown, both supporters and detractors of a tunnel say, Tysons would need a grid of streets to replace the winding office park loops that congest traffic -- no easy task with two large malls, Tysons Corner Center and Tysons Galleria, sitting in the middle of the area and the Capital Beltway slicing across it. To be more urban, the area would need thousands more residents to support more after-hours activity (about 17,000 people live there, compared with about 100,000 who work there).

And it would need to become much more developed, particularly around the four proposed Metro stations, to put more destinations within walking distance of a larger population. With 17,000 acres, Tysons is as large as downtown Boston, but much of it is parking lots and swaths of scrub and trees.

The county's plans call for allowing about 65 percent higher building density, mostly around stations, after the rail's arrival, but that still would leave Tysons less dense than much of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and far less dense than many downtown areas. A county task force working on a master plan is considering higher densities, but there might not be enough demand or community support for that.


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