On Road To Dulles, Confusion And Angst

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2007

Every few weeks, it seems, bring another argument in favor of building a 23-mile Metrorail extension from the East Falls Church station to Dulles International Airport underground through Tysons Corner instead of on an elevated track.

And yet the $4 billion project marches toward the construction of a raised structure that would slice across Tysons on a track as high as 70 feet, complicating Fairfax County's efforts to create a walkable downtown.

After coming close to choosing the underground route last summer only to be warned against it by federal transit officials and Northern Virginia congressmen, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is standing by his decision against the tunnel, even as the protests grow louder.

This has left people in Northern Virginia puzzling over a single question: How is it that an option that almost everyone agrees is preferable probably won't get built?

"It just seems to me and every person I've ever talked to that putting it aboveground makes no sense, aesthetically and logically and every way you can think of," said Irv Auerbach, a longtime McLean resident and member of a task force drawing up a master plan for Tysons. "It just makes more sense to go underground."

At stake is the future look and feel of Tysons, the former rural crossroads that has become the commercial hub of Northern Virginia and a leading jobs center for the region that rivals the District. Fairfax leaders say Tysons needs to become a more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly place or risk growing obsolete. All agree that the arrival of Metro will help accomplish this. But the expanding legions of tunnel supporters say the transformation would be much more likely without a hulking elevated track dominating the area for decades to come.

Even those involved in the project for years struggle to explain how it has arrived at a point that is so marked by confusion, misgivings and ironies. It appears possible that one of the region's most costly and anticipated transportation upgrades will be widely spurned from the moment it opens.

But attempts at explanation center on two main themes: the last-minute nature of the push for a tunnel, coming just one year before the project was to receive federal funding and begin construction, and the federal rules that make changing designs at this point so risky.

Those involved in the project say many key decisions were made years ago by the state, local and Metro officials who began planning the extension in 1994. Then, the focus was on reconciling the competing goals of the extension: to get travelers to the airport quickly and to serve Tysons, which meant veering off the most direct route to the airport along the Dulles Toll Road.

By 2002, the officials had ruled out tunneling through Tysons as too expensive without considering an alternative building method: a wide-bore digging machine that had been used successfully in Europe and Asia. It can be more efficient than regular tunneling because it digs out a single tunnel big enough for both rail tracks and doesn't require cutting open the streets above.

Back then, few residents were paying much attention. It was only last year, after Metro and Fairfax officials urged the state to take a look at the wide-bore technology, that many people awoke to the implications of an elevated track and began to rally against it. The elevated track, they said, would not only hinder the transformation of Tysons into a town center, but snarl traffic during construction. Tysons is right off the Capital Beltway, along several major commuter roads, including Routes 123 and 7.

But several key players, including U.S. Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), cautioned against changing plans so late in the game, when the project was less than a year from probably winning federal funding. If the state delayed the project to do the needed tunnel planning, they warned, the escalation of costs over time could make it unaffordable, or the project could miss the current federal budget cycle, reducing its odds of getting funded. Kaine heeded this in deciding against the tunnel in September.

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