Tunnel Backers Given New Hope

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Federal transit officials said yesterday that Virginia has until spring 2008 to submit its plans for a Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport, cheering supporters of an underground route through Tysons Corner who said the additional time would allow the state to change its decision from an elevated track to a tunnel.

The officials' statements, at a Federal Transit Administration news conference on the federal budget, appeared to undermine one of the main arguments against switching from a mostly elevated route to a below-ground one for the extension's four-mile stretch through Tysons.

Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) warned last summer that the delays involved in switching to a tunnel could throw the $4 billion project out of the current federal funding cycle, greatly jeopardizing the $900 million that Virginia hopes to receive. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) cited such warnings last fall in his decision not to support a tunnel.

But top federal transit officials, who have made few public comments on the project and its deadline, offered a different picture yesterday. They said the state would have until May 2008 -- 15 months from now -- to submit its final plans and pricing for the project and still qualify for the current funding cycle, assuming the submission is acceptable.

The officials also said that adding a tunnel into the project would result in delays of six to 18 months. That means if the state changed its plans now, it could conceivably meet the deadline.

"This is a local decision. We're neutral," said Federal Transit Administrator James S. Simpson. "If the governor wishes to reexamine it, he's free to do that."

Davis, who last summer was one of the strongest voices warning about the risks of a tunnel, said last night that the federal officials' statements raised the possibility that Kaine could still switch plans, if he acted quickly. Davis added that there is still the question of whether a tunnel would cost too much, but he noted that recent estimates by companies proposing a tunnel have placed its cost below the latest estimates for an elevated line.

"It looks like the timing issue could be overcome. It looks like the governor's got six more weeks, doesn't it, to [change plans] and still be eligible for funding," he said. "He's been handed another hot potato. If you move quickly and things go right, you could in theory meet the timeline."

A spokesman for Wolf said that the decision remains with Kaine.

Kaine last week reiterated his decision against a tunnel, citing concerns about losing federal funding. Yesterday, his office referred questions to the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Its director, Matthew O. Tucker, said that even if there is time to change plans and qualify for federal funding, other downsides remain, including potentially higher costs of a tunnel and the delay of waiting another year to begin construction. As it stands, the 23-mile extension from West Falls Church is to begin construction in a year and reach Tysons Corner in 2012 and Dulles in 2015.

"We've made a decision about how to build the project," Tucker said. "When folks talk about the tunnel, what they're talking about is additional planning and delay."

The federal officials' clarification of the remaining room in the calendar encouraged those who have continued to press for a tunnel by arguing that it would cause less congestion during construction and contribute more to transforming Tysons into a walkable downtown.

Scott Monett, head of a group of businesses and residents backing a tunnel, said the state could definitely meet the federal deadline defined yesterday because his group has already produced $3.5 million worth of preliminary engineering plans for a tunnel. "It's spectacular news," he said. "We will do everything in our power to ensure that the FTA gets everything they need -- assuming Virginia takes this enormous development and runs with it."

Tunnel skeptics noted that even with the wiggle room allowed by the federal deadline, there is still the risk that changing plans would throw the project outside the current funding cycle, after which it would be difficult to get the money. Tunnel supporters counter that that risk would be lower had Kaine decided for a tunnel several months ago.

In addition, skeptics said, the cost escalations caused by delay could raise the project's price to where it is deemed too expensive under the federal government's cost thresholds. The government only funds projects that it rates as "cost-effective," even if state or local governments or private companies are willing to pay for extra features that add to the price tag.

Tunnel supporters argue that's not an issue because building the line below-ground would cost no more, if not less. The engineering plans commissioned by Monett's group, which is backed by Tysons landowner WestGroup, gave an $2.4 billion upper estimate for the first half of the line, to Reston. That is the same as the estimate used by contractors several months ago for that stretch with an elevated track. And the elevated route estimate has risen in recent months, to the point where there is now worry about whether it would even qualify for federal funding.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company