Tunnel at Tysons Would Be Costly Risk, Study Says

Surrounded by elected officials from rural Virginia, state Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) speaks with reporters in Richmond about regional and state transportation issues.
Surrounded by elected officials from rural Virginia, state Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) speaks with reporters in Richmond about regional and state transportation issues. (By Eric Brady -- Associated Press)
By Bill Turque and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 9, 2007

A rail tunnel under Tysons Corner would take nearly three years longer to build than an elevated track, would cost at least $160 million more and would jeopardize $900 million in federal money for the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport, according to a study commissioned by state officials.

The report's findings are a serious blow to a group of Fairfax County residents and business and political leaders who have been pressuring Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to reverse his decision to build the rail line aboveground. The group had spent $3.5 million to hire a group of engineers who produced a study showing that a 3.4 mile tunnel through Tysons was technically and financially possible.

The Kaine administration responded by hiring its own experts to evaluate the group's tunnel study. If anything, their findings are likely to harden Kaine's already staunch opposition to changing a design approved by Fairfax, Metro and other officials in 2002.

Pursuing a tunnel could doom the state's chances for federal financing, Kaine said. State officials said yesterday that their study should be the last word on the matter.

"From our perspective, the planning phase of this project is closed. We're ready to move toward construction," said Matthew O. Tucker, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. He said he anticipates having a final commitment from the federal government on funding by the end of the year.

Construction of the first phase of the $4 billion project, from the West Falls Church Metro station to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, is scheduled to begin soon after federal funding is secured, with completion slated for 2012. The full 23-mile extension to Dulles and Loudoun County is planned for completion by 2015.

Tunnel advocates, who say an elevated track would hinder Tysons' ability to evolve into a mature, pedestrian-friendly urban center, denounced the study, questioning the independence of its principal author, Texas-based engineering firm Carter and Burgess Inc. The firm serves as a consultant to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which heads the rail project. Advocates also accused Tucker of a biased and dismissive attitude toward the tunnel option that effectively preordained the study's outcome.

"We're shocked and dismayed by the sheer arrogance," said Scott Monett, president of Tysons Tunnel, a group of residents and business leaders organized by the McLean Chamber of Commerce. "We're shocked at the whole idea of trying to discredit all of the hard work by this community and trying to simply sweep it under the carpet."

Tucker said the other firms working with Carter and Burgess on the study had extensive engineering experience with tunnels. In the end, however, the study "really doesn't tell us a lot more than we already know. We already knew the tunnel proposal contained very serious risks," Tucker said.

A committee of the Metro board of directors, which ultimately will own and operate the rail extension, also expressed unhappiness about the state's decision-making process. They said that Virginia had not thoroughly explored the consequences for the transit agency of an elevated track versus a tunnel.

The Metro board is scheduled to consider approving the project's operation costs in May, but board members suggested yesterday that they might not do so unless there is a more thorough discussion of the tunnel option.

"This is a once-in-a-generation -- or multigeneration -- decision," said Chris Zimmerman (D), a member of the Arlington County board and Metro board. "There's enough reason to doubt that the decision in Richmond is the right one."

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