Tysons Tunnel Request Rebuffed

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Two Northern Virginia congressmen quietly asked federal transit officials this month whether the Bush administration would revive a proposed Metro tunnel through Tysons Corner, only to get what one of the lawmakers called a definitive no.

"It would be a time-consuming delay, and it would undoubtedly put the project back at the end of the line if we undertake that delay," Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said yesterday. Moran and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) sent a letter Jan. 19 to the Federal Transit Administration asking for the review.

The letter is a sign of the pressure being brought to bear by persistent local support for building a tunnel instead of an elevated track for the Tysons portion of a planned $4 billion Metro extension to Dulles International Airport.

Previously, Davis and Fairfax's third House member, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R), had warned Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) that switching designs several years after state and local officials had settled on an elevated route could imperil $900 million in federal funding and seriously delay a project that is to reach Reston in 2012 and Dulles and Loudoun County in 2015. And after Kaine ruled out a tunnel in September, based partly on those warnings, all three congressmen urged that the focus turn to getting the line built with an elevated track.

Since then, though, a group of residents and businesses organized by the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce has launched a vigorous effort to urge reconsideration of a tunnel, which supporters say would cause less congestion during construction and contribute more to turning Tysons into a walkable downtown. The group, which includes the largest Tysons landowner, WestGroup, raised $3.5 million to pay for engineering designs that it says prove a tunnel is practical.

Moran and Davis referred to the group's efforts in their letter to help explain why they were again raising the idea of a tunnel. They asked whether it would be possible to conduct a "dual-track" process under which federal officials could consider the tunnel with the help of the group's designs while moving the existing plan through the approval process, which is scheduled to end late this year.

This, the congressmen wrote, would allow an "apples to apples" comparison between the options, while not delaying the existing plan if that remains the final choice.

Federal Transit Administrator James S. Simpson responded last week that such an approach would not be possible. The state could ask for the existing proposal to be placed on hold while his agency assesses the tunnel but cannot proceed with both, he wrote.

"When the project sponsor is still considering a significant variation in the project, with a different scope, unvalidated cost, and unknown financial plan, approval of the project into Final Design would be inappropriate," he wrote. He added: "As the project sponsor, the Commonwealth is free to decide which design option it wishes to pursue."

The head of the pro-tunnel group, Scott Monett, said he saw some encouragement in Simpson's emphasis that the state still could change its mind -- something Kaine has shown no sign of considering.

Tunnel supporters note that their designs showed that the first portion of the line, to Reston, could be built with a tunnel for at most $2.4 billion. That is no more than what contractors are said to be seeking for that portion with an elevated track in negotiations with the state, which are running nearly a month behind. The tunnel group, which collected 12,000 signatures, argues that switching to a tunnel would result in only a few months' delay, which would be made up during construction.

Monett said Moran's downbeat reaction to Simpson's reply suggested that the congressmen were not sincerely hoping to revive the tunnel but instead were trying to show that they were responding to the public groundswell and to get federal officials to again warn against a tunnel.

"This is the 'I'm right; you're wrong' letter," Monett said. "If you read the letter that [the congressmen] sent the way I did, it's saying, 'Tell me the 17 reasons why we can't do this.' "

Davis disputed that, saying yesterday that he and Moran simply felt the need to get federal officials to clarify publicly where they stand.

"If they've been forthcoming with the governor, they haven't been with citizens," he said. "We needed to get them on the record because right now we're just getting a lot of innuendo."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company