For McLean Chamber Group, Tysons Tunnel Dream Endures

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 19, 2006

Two months after Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine declared it dead, a proposal to build a Metrorail line below Tysons Corner instead of an elevated track is still being championed by businesses and residents who, despite long odds, are putting several million dollars into keeping the idea alive.

Underlying the movement is widespread discontent and bafflement over why a proposal to build the line underground was killed despite its being favored by many Fairfax County residents whose families would use and live beside the line for generations to come.

Particularly upsetting is that federal officials warned Kaine (D) against a tunnel, even though the state was willing to cover the additional cost, some Northern Virginians say.

"The evidence was compelling that this should be a tunnel, and I was as shocked as anyone at the decision," said Brenda Bohlke, a Herndon engineer who sat on a state panel that endorsed a tunnel. "It's common sense."

Leading the attempt to resuscitate the tunnel proposal is a group created by the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce, dubbed TysonsTunnel.org. With the slogan "It's not over til it's under," the group is trying to raise $3 million from businesses, including Tysons' biggest landowner, WestGroup, to pay for engineering designs that could prove a tunnel would be doable.

More than 200 residents packed an auditorium in McLean on Wednesday to hear experts assembled by the group argue that building an elevated track for the four-mile Tysons portion of the 23-mile Metro extension from West Falls Church to Dulles International Airport would worsen traffic congestion during construction. A track also would deal a blow to Fairfax's efforts to turn the area into a lively, walkable downtown similar to Arlington County's Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, they said.

Reviving the tunnel now is a long shot, as state and federal officials move to stay on schedule for extending the rail to Tysons in 2012 and Dulles in 2015. "Our focus is on making the aerial alignment work in a way that helps commuters and helps area businesses flourish," said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer.

Even if the last-minute bid for the tunnel fails, though, the vigor of the opposition to an elevated track suggests that the state's year-long dalliance with the underground option has caused a shift in how the project is viewed by the public. For years, many in Fairfax had seen the planned extension of rail to Dulles as a boon for the region, regardless of its design.

But after the state built up hopes for an underground line only to dash them, it now appears possible that the line, with its 35-foot-high track slicing through Tysons, could become one of the region's most unloved transportation structures. The tunnel, meanwhile, has become an unlikely cause celebre, hovering like a ghost over the project.

"Once they get going on [the elevated track], the populace is going to be very angry," said Paula Roberts, a McLean resident.

As recently as last year, there had been a consensus in favor of building the line aboveground through Tysons along Route 123 and Route 7, with four stations along the way. Metro, state and Fairfax officials had considered tunneling in the late 1990s but decided it would be too expensive.

Late last year, though, Metro officials suggested a new method, using a large-bore machine to dig a single huge tunnel that could hold tracks for both directions. The technology, which has been used in Europe and Asia, had the potential to make a tunnel affordable.

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