No Tunnel For Tysons, Kaine Says

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 7, 2006

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine announced yesterday that a proposal to build a tunnel under Tysons Corner as part of a Metrorail expansion to Dulles International Airport is dead, after federal officials and area congressmen made clear that the costs of an underground link could jeopardize the entire 23-mile, $4 billion project.

Kaine's decision in favor of an elevated track through Tysons represents a stunning shift, coming just a week after contractors, local officials and others involved in the project expected an announcement in favor of a below-ground route.

The decision means that construction on the Metro extension from West Falls Church to Dulles will begin late next year on a schedule to reach Reston by 2012, a year later than planned, partly because of the months spent studying the tunnel option. The line is planned to reach the airport and Loudoun County by 2015.

"We carefully reviewed the tunnel option at Tysons, and I share the belief of many of our project partners that a tunnel alignment would be the best option," Kaine (D) said in a statement after a meeting on Capitol Hill yesterday morning. "However, too many unanswered questions remain about cost and timing. These uncertainties cannot be allowed to jeopardize this critical project."

The decision comes after nearly a year of growing momentum for using an advanced tunneling technology to put the four-mile Tysons stretch underground, rather than on an elevated track running down Chain Bridge Road and Leesburg Pike. The announcement dismayed some Fairfax County leaders, Tysons landowners, Metro officials and other tunnel supporters, who say an elevated track cutting through the area will make it much more difficult to create a walkable downtown.

"This will prove to be the wrong decision for the wrong reasons," said Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who is also on the Metro board. "Ten years from now, I regret my son may pick up a planning text where Fairfax's long-awaited rail extension is highlighted as a failed attempt at service and economic development. It can't only be about the here and now."

A week ago, all signs were pointing toward a decision in favor of a tunnel. A panel of engineers convened by the governor this summer endorsed the tunnel option, saying that although it would be more costly, it would cause far less disruption during construction, in addition to the long-term benefits. Within the past two weeks, the governor's office prepared a news release announcing a decision in favor of a tunnel, with indications that the announcement probably would be made before Labor Day, several sources said.

But word of a pro-tunnel decision prompted even stronger cautions from influential skeptics, including officials in the Federal Transit Administration, which must approve the project, and Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), the extension's top sponsors on Capitol Hill. When Kaine and his staff made their final checks with federal officials, they were met with blunt warnings about the extra costs and delays of a tunnel, say those familiar with the meetings.

Wolf and Davis had cautioned Kaine in a July letter that the tunnel could jeopardize the entire rail line. In recent days, they increasingly made it known that Kaine should not count on them to secure federal support for an underground route.

"It was clear that if you gambled and went for gold, that chances for success were very small," Davis said yesterday. "In the start, it was, 'How do we make this thing work,' but in the end it was clear it was not only a risk but a likelihood that we would lose federal approval."

Davis and others were worried about losing the $900 million the federal government is expected to provide for the extension. The delays required for reviewing and designing a tunnel, they said, would push the project into future funding cycles and potentially put the money at risk.

The extra expense could also put the project at risk of failing to meet the FTA's "cost effectiveness" standards, federal officials said. Even if tunnel supporters managed to find local sources to cover its cost, there was a chance that the FTA would deem the project too expensive and withdraw the $900 million.

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