Fairfax Urges Another Look At a Tunnel Under Tysons
Tuesday, January 9, 2007
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors endorsed yesterday a last-minute effort by businesses and residents to bury a proposed Metrorail extension beneath Tysons Corner -- even as Virginia officials move closer to approving a contract for an aboveground route.
In a unanimous vote, the board urged the state and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is taking over the rail project, to rebid the job and reconsider a tunnel for Tysons. It urged federal officials to provide their share of funding whether the line is aboveground or below. And it urged that the state and airports authority do more to include the county in decisions because Fairfax businesses and commuters are paying the biggest share of the project's cost.
"It's so important to make sure we have the best long-term value we can and that the tunnel remains an option," said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), a Metro board member and a leading force behind the vote.
While tunnel supporters cheered the vote, it is unclear what impact it will have, considering that the state and airports authority have shown no sign of reconsidering the decision against a tunnel. Several supervisors said that if a tunnel is ultimately not chosen, they would still support the project. And they made no threat to withdraw the county's share of funding, which consists mainly of a tax on landowners along the line.
But the vote underscored just how much the 23-mile extension of Metro from West Falls Church to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County has gone from being a popular $4 billion transit improvement to a politically sensitive project with ramifications for next fall's elections. Amid seemingly growing discontent over the prospect of an elevated track slicing through Tysons, elected officials are distancing themselves from the decision against the tunnel.
After planning for years to build the four-mile Tysons portion of the line mostly on a 35-foot-high elevated track, state officials in late 2005 started exploring a new tunneling technology that had the potential to be less expensive. Supporters argued that a tunnel would cause less disruption during construction and would help transform Tysons into a walkable downtown.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) was leaning toward endorsing a tunnel but ruled it out in September after area congressmen and federal transit officials told him that switching to a tunnel would postpone the project beyond its scheduled 2015 completion or kill it altogether. The state and airports authority are now negotiating a final price with the contractors, a group led by Bechtel Corp., and hope to secure $900 million in federal funding later this year.
But a group of residents and businesses organized by the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce, dubbed TysonsTunnel.org, is continuing to campaign for a tunnel and has raised $3.5 million to pay for tunnel engineering designs, due next week, which it says will prove that a tunnel would be affordable.
The strength of the group's efforts is keeping the debate alive. After supporting consideration of a tunnel for much of last year, Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly's initial reaction to Kaine's decision was that he was disappointed but that it was time to accept it and move on.
But yesterday Connolly (D) came out in favor of giving the tunnel another look as more than 100 members of TysonsTunnel.org, who had been bused in from Vienna and McLean, looked on. "I favor a tunnel, as do most of my colleagues, and we're going to work hard to try and make that happen," he said. He cautioned that tunnel supporters should be prepared to support an elevated line if that is built in the end. "I am a realistic politician who doesn't like to pander," said Connolly, who is running for reelection in the fall.
TysonsTunnel.org leader Scott Monett praised Connolly for coming back around. "He's gotten behind this a lot more since he saw the political support for it," he said. "Any politician who's good listens to his people and is going to change as he listens."
Withholding judgment was tunnel supporter Laurie Genevro Cole, a Vienna town council member who said she needed to see what substance was behind the board's resolution. "There is an obvious outpouring of public support for a tunnel, and I hope that the board's action is a meaningful response to that, that they are committed," she said.
Marcia McAllister, a spokeswoman for the team of state engineers overseeing the project, declined to comment on the supervisors' vote, saying that the state and airports authority are moving rapidly ahead with the existing plan. "We have continued to work on the aerial alignment," she said. "That was the alignment the governor chose."
The ongoing work on the elevated route lent an air of unreality to the supervisors' discussion, which made it sound at points as if the governor hadn't already ruled conclusively against a tunnel.
But Mark C. Lowham, a senior vice president with WestGroup, a major Tysons landowner helping fund the tunnel group, said the resolution showed there was still hope. Tunnel supporters said it's possible that the state and airports authority will find the contractors' final price too high and then give the tunnel a second look.
"It reinforces that the issue is not going away," he said. "People are more passionate than ever, and to the extent that this reinforces that with [federal and state officials], it was very useful."