Davis Joins Tysons Tunnel Backers
Thursday, February 15, 2007
The public groundswell against building an elevated track through Tysons Corner for a Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport has failed to force a change in course. But it has helped sway one key player: Rep. Thomas M. Davis III.
In July, the Virginia Republican co-wrote a forceful letter warning Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) that switching to an underground route in Tysons could jeopardize federal funding for the 23-mile line. The warnings, repeated in later meetings, persuaded Kaine to reject a tunnel in September.
Virginia "may very well be rolling the dice on the future of this project," warned the letter from Davis and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). "Simply put, we are concerned about the long-term viability of the project with any decision that could delay it."
Last weekend, Davis appeared at a rally of tunnel supporters in Vienna, wearing a pro-tunnel sticker and declaring that elected officials must do everything they can to determine whether an underground route is possible. He said yesterday that he is building congressional support for preserving federal funding for the project if it switches to a tunnel.
"I just want to assure you I'd like to see this below ground," Davis told the crowd of 400. "Imagine what the construction is going to be like when they're constructing this thing aboveground. It takes forever to get there now. Putting this thing underground saves a lot of that."
Davis's shift is a sign of how much the Dulles rail line has gone from a popular transit upgrade to potential political dynamite. Since Kaine's decision, a group of residents and businesses funded partly by Tysons landowner WestGroup has fanned opposition to an elevated track at well-attended meetings, rallies and even a recent happy hour at a bar, collecting 12,000 signatures along the way. The group, TysonsTunnel.org, says an elevated track will not only snarl roads during construction but also stymie Fairfax County's efforts to turn Tysons into a walkable downtown.
Davis's change is raising eyebrows among local politicians. They surmise he is protecting not only himself against voter backlash but also his wife, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax), who faces reelection this fall.
Among those charging Davis with having it both ways is his wife's announced Democratic challenger, former delegate Chap Petersen. Petersen is trying to take advantage of pro-tunnel sentiment by coming out strongly in favor of an underground route, after having had little to do with the project beforehand.
"I guess if you take both sides of an issue you can never be wrong," Petersen said. "It seems to me people want to get credit for both sides. They want to be seen supporting a tunnel but not stop and interrupt the process, and the process at this point is building elevated rail."
Davis said he is simply adapting to the project's shifting realities -- in particular, the indications that the cost of the aboveground plan is rising to where it could exceed federal thresholds. If that happens, the project could be back to square one, allowing for a new look at a tunnel. All he is doing is preparing for that possibility, Davis said.
"I don't think that's a flip-flop. That's being a responsible official," he said. "You roll with the punches."
Davis said he was also struck by what he saw at a recent town hall meeting held by Devolites Davis, where almost all residents said they would rather delay rail to Dulles by five years and have it run below Tysons than have the project run on an elevated track and built on the current schedule, reaching Tysons in 2012 and Dulles in 2015.
"Is there politics when you get crowds out there? Yes. Would I be doing this if no one asked about a tunnel? Of course not," he said.
He called "ridiculous" the notion that he is trying to buttress his wife, who he noted is seeking to secure more state funding for the project. More, he said, than Petersen has done on the issue.
Only last month, Devolites Davis discouraged tunnel supporters when she cut off the group's leader, Scott Monett, during a presentation he was making in Richmond. At Saturday's rally, she drew cheers by saying she and other lawmakers would pressure Kaine to reconsider.
"We want this to be underground and expect him to use every means in his power to make that happen," she said.
Devolites Davis said she was speaking out because she realized how strongly her constituents felt. "I've always been supportive of a tunnel," she said. "It's unfortunate that Chap wants to politicize it."
In their July letter, Davis and Wolf warned that a delay to switch designs would drive up costs and could throw the project out of the running for the federal funding it needs. "The bottom line is this: Northern Virginia cannot afford to lose this project," they wrote.
At Saturday's rally, Davis said it would be both "good and bad" if the project collapses as a result of its costs running too high, because that would "open it up" to starting over with a tunnel.
Northern Virginia's other two congressmen, Wolf and Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D), continue to maintain that switching designs would imperil the project. Moran spoke at the rally but did not wear a tunnel sticker and said a switch was unlikely, drawing heckles from the crowd.
"I'm here not to be a cheerleader, not to tell you what you want to hear. I'm going to tell you what I think you need to know," Moran said. "I'm sorry I'm not the kind of politician you'd prefer to have standing here. . . . The worst thing we can do right now is promise something we can't deliver."
Moran said of Davis's remarks at the rally: "Tom was basically conducting himself in a responsible, albeit political, manner." Wolf declined to comment on Davis's stance, as did Kaine's office.
Tunnel backers said they welcome Davis's support even as they realize his warnings against the tunnel helped block it last summer, when Kaine was inclined toward supporting it and when there was more time to change plans. Monett said Davis was simply responding to the information the group has provided in support of a tunnel.
"Well, you know, people reserve the right to change their mind," Monett said. "It doesn't surprise us that now that we've provided a solution to their letter that he would change his opinion on this. It proves that he's practical."