By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Even as some Northern Virginia businesses and residents fight to change the design of the planned Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County, state officials are pushing ahead with a major step in the project: turning over its management, as well as control of the Dulles Toll Road, to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
State officials said last week that on or around Dec. 29 they will sign documents to hand over control of the toll road to the authority, which runs Dulles and Reagan National Airport, and which will use toll revenue to pay for more than half of the $4 billion subway extension.
Further documents will be signed in the coming months to initiate the handover of the rail extension to the authority as well, making official a transfer that was agreed to in principle last spring.
The imminent transfer of the highway and rail project to the Airports Authority has been overshadowed in recent months by the debate over whether the 23-mile extension should run below or above ground for its four-mile stretch through Tysons Corner.
After much deliberation, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) ruled against the below-ground approach in September, saying that federal officials had warned him that the costs and delays associated with switching to a tunnel would jeopardize the entire project, which is scheduled to reach Wiehle Avenue in Reston by 2012 and Dulles and Loudoun by 2015.
But the project's handover to the Airports Authority has major ramifications of its own. Skeptics of the below-ground approach say that it is even more unlikely that the tunnel proposal can be revived now that the authority is assuming more control over the project. The authority's top goal, after all, is getting the extension to Dulles as quickly and affordably as possible, and it is therefore seen as unlikely to go along with a change in design that could cause further delays and cost increases.
Advocates of a tunnel are not letting the handover discourage them. A group of businesses and residents organized by the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce is paying for a $3.5 million engineering study of a tunnel, which they say will be done next month and will show that a tunnel would be affordable. The group argues that a tunnel would cause less traffic congestion during construction and do much more for Tysons in the long run than an elevated track.
Scott Monett, the chamber's board chairman, said the group will try to convince the Airports Authority that a tunnel wouldn't necessarily delay the extension since construction, the group argues, would proceed much more quickly underground. It will also argue that with so many of the extension's riders to Dulles expected from Tysons, it doesn't make sense for the authority to go with the elevated track, which could prove quite unpopular there.
"We're going to try to communicate with the Airports Authority as we have with others and make them see that the benefits of a tunnel are significant," Monett said. "If they put in a project that 80 percent of the people don't support, then it's going to be hard for them to manage. It's in their interest to do a project with broad public support."
The other ramification of the handover is the potential impact on highway tolls. The argument for the transfer was that the authority has experience in major building projects, and that giving it control over toll road revenue would eliminate the uncertainty over how to pay for the project.
Instead of hoping that the federal government would chip in more than the $900 million it is already expected to contribute, the state could simply let the Airports Authority use toll road revenue to pay for the bulk of the project. (A tax on landowners along the line is paying for about a fifth.)
That leaves open the question of how much tolls will need to increase to pay for the rail line. The state and authority have said that they don't foresee increases beyond a 25-cent increase introduced in May and another 25-cent increase in 2010. But the contractors' estimate for the project's price -- even without a tunnel -- is already several hundred million dollars beyond initial projections due mainly to the escalating costs of materials. Those involved in the project say the most obvious place to turn to cover any additional cost is toll revenue, which would probably require further increases in tolls.
"I do have confidence in the [Airports Authority] that they are going to be very successful in managing this project within really strict financial guidelines," said J. Douglas Koelemay, a Fairfax County public relations executive and member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board. But if costs do rise, he added, "the logical conclusion it leads you to is, yes, it would have to be covered by tolls."
Airports Authority spokeswoman Tara Hamilton declined to discuss the prospect of additional toll increases, saying the authority needs to wait and see what price it settles on in negotiations with the contractor and federal officials. "We're not at that point yet," she said.
State Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer said that what matters most is that toll revenues would remain in the Dulles corridor instead of being used elsewhere in the state. "It ensures that Dulles rail doesn't stop at Reston and will go all the way into Loudoun," he said.