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.
Kaine and others in his administration expressed confidence in recent months that they could find a way to obtain approval for a rail line within those standards. Supporters noted that the panel convened by Kaine had determined that a tunnel would cause only a year's delay and would cost at most $200 million more than an elevated track.
But in recent days, FTA officials and the congressmen drove home just how difficult meeting the standards could be. Davis pointed to one specific new threat: that switching plans could, for technical reasons, effectively annul legislation giving the Dulles line an exemption from new, even stricter standards for transit projects.
Davis said yesterday that the FTA also "did not buy" the engineer panel's cost estimate, noting that it was based on a brief proposal from companies seeking to build a tunnel and not on detailed plans. Federal officials argued that the delay caused by switching plans alone would drive the cost of a tunnel higher because of increased construction costs.
Kaine's aides said yesterday that the governor had been hearing the federal warnings via his staff for some time but did not hear them directly until early last week, when he began a series of one-on-one phone calls and meetings on Capitol Hill.
"The message was, 'We will support you, but be aware that we have done significant heavy lifting to secure these funds and hold on to them. There is a very real downside risk,' " Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said.
Aides said Kaine was stunned that federal officials would sacrifice the tunnel even if any extra cost were borne by state or private sources. He and lawmakers met with FTA Administrator James Simpson yesterday morning. Simpson was blunt, saying that if they pushed for a tunnel, they were likely to lose any commitment for federal money, according to Hall, who was at the meeting.
Virginia's senior senator, John W. Warner (R), implored Simpson, according to two people at the meeting. But Wolf, who has fought to gain rail money for years, argued against risking the federal funds, at one point banging his fist on the table to make his point.
Kaine and the lawmakers huddled briefly outside the office, where they agreed to issue a joint statement abandoning the tunnel.
Wolf praised the governor afterward. "I commend the governor for his decision. It was a tough decision, a Solomonic decision," he said. "You wouldn't want to roll the dice."
Some tunnel supporters yesterday pointed fingers at the contractors on the project, a consortium of Bechtel and Washington Group International that was threatened with losing at least the Tysons part of the job to companies proposing to build the tunnel. Tunnel supporters said Bechtel has used its considerable clout to block a tunnel. A company spokesman denied the contention.
The track through Tysons will run 35 feet high, on average, and dip briefly below ground at the juncture of Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road. Tunnel supporters, including the largest landowner at Tysons, WestGroup, say an elevated track will make it harder to add a new street grid and build close to the street, both hallmarks of successful urban areas.
"There are just as many risks that the elevated is not going to succeed, because it will inhibit good urban design and ridership," said Stewart Schwartz, director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "We're talking about a 100-year decision. As a region, we should be a lot bolder than this."
Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), another tunnel backer, struck a more resigned note.
"We will make [an elevated track] work because we have to," he said. The governor "had a tough decision to make, given the position of the two congressmen and the FTA. We don't live in an ideal world, and we'll make it work."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.