Kaine's Pick Is Said to Be Tunnel For Tysons
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is close to deciding in favor of building a Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport below ground through Tysons Corner rather than on an elevated track, sources say, despite critics who say it could imperil the entire project.
With the announcement, expected in the next few days, tunnel supporters would have managed in less than a year to overhaul a $4 billion project that was to begin construction early next year with an elevated track. Among those who have argued most forcefully for a tunnel are two of Kaine's top campaign supporters: WestGroup, the biggest Tysons landowner, and Scott Kasprowicz, a former telecom executive whom Kaine hired this year as a deputy transportation secretary.
Whether to build the four-mile stretch through Tysons below ground has become the defining question for the 23-mile extension, and for Fairfax County. Proponents of a tunnel say it is key to one of the project's main goals: transforming Tysons into a walkable, vibrant downtown. Critics, though, including the project's top congressional sponsors, say the costs of a tunnel and the delays involved in changing the design could doom the rail extension.
Most indications from Richmond suggest that Kaine will endorse the below-ground route, according to contractors, local officials and others involved in the project who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of upstaging the governor. Last month, a panel of engineers, convened at the state's request, recommended a tunnel, saying its extra cost and time would be worth it because it would benefit Tysons in the long run and cause less traffic disruption during construction.
Going with a tunnel would raise many questions, most notably how to cover the extra cost, which tunnel supporters estimate at $200 million but which skeptics say would run higher. Options mentioned so far include increasing the special tax that Tysons landowners are paying for the project or raising tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, which are already covering half the project's cost.
The project faces other major hurdles. A new design would have to pass muster with the Federal Transit Administration, which could withdraw the $900 million it is expected to provide if it deems the project's overall price tag too high. A tunnel design also would have to undergo environmental reviews and engineering design that supporters say would delay the project by a year but others say would take longer. There is the chance of a dispute with the current builders if the state decides to seek another contractor for the Tysons portion of the line.
Moreover, the state must complete the planned hand-over of the project to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which had been expecting to inherit a plan with an elevated track and has not said publicly whether it supports a tunnel design. And all this would have to be accomplished in an uncertain political landscape. By going with a tunnel, the state effectively would be overruling the project's main congressional sponsors, Republican Reps. Frank R. Wolf and Thomas M. Davis III, who argue that switching to an underground route carries many risks.
Patricia Nicoson, director of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association, a nonprofit group that supports rail to Dulles, said the most important thing is that everyone will soon know what the design will be.
"The decision will finally be made," she said. "I'm ready to roll up shirtsleeves and make the tunnel happen."
The creation of a "Silver Line" to Dulles, which would be one of Metro's largest expansions in years, is seen as speeding the trip to the airport and easing congestion throughout Tysons and the crowded Dulles corridor. Under the initial plan, the extension was scheduled to reach Tysons by 2011 and Dulles by 2015. Although the state has made all the key decisions until now, it is planning to hand over the project to the airports authority in the coming months. The line would start at the West Falls Church station, have four stops in the Tysons area, pass through Reston and end in Loudoun County just beyond the airport.
Less than a year ago, contractors were advancing plans for a mostly elevated route through Tysons. But Metro officials, who had previously ruled out building a tunnel at Tysons using conventional digging techniques because of the cost, began calling for consideration of a potentially more efficient option: a wide-bore tunneling machine that has been used in Europe and Asia but not the United States.
The project's contractors, a consortium of Bechtel Corp. and Washington Group International, calculated that that technique would still be too expensive. Tunnel supporters, including Fairfax officials and Tysons landowners, nonetheless persuaded state officials to take a closer look at the below-ground option. Wolf and Davis, key backers of the rail extension, warned that a switch to a tunnel could imperil crucial federal funding. But the engineering panel enlisted by the state endorsed a below-ground route.