Rail Project For Dulles Raises Concerns

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

If Virginia transportation officials and a private contractor resolve their differences over costs and strike a deal to build the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport, Northern Virginia commuters and landowners paying most of the $4 billion bill are likely to know very little about the terms of the agreement.

A state law intended to bring big-ticket road and rail projects to fruition quickly and cheaply also grants the parties involved an unusual level of secrecy in their negotiations. The lack of transparency could make it difficult to evaluate the financial risks that accompany such complex public works, such as cost overruns and scheduling delays, some local officials and critics say.

Secrecy is not the only issue surrounding the Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995. The law was designed to jump-start expensive road and transit projects by attracting private-sector investment and corporate efficiency to the process. It allows the state to dispense with traditional competitive bidding and select a single private partner to design and build a project for a fixed price and profit.

It hasn't quite worked that way. The private contractor, Dulles Transit Partners -- a construction consortium of Bechtel Inc. and Washington Group International -- has put no money into construction of the extension's first phase, which would run from just east of the West Falls Church Metro station to Wiehle Avenue in Reston by 2012. The consortium will be reimbursed for the $15 million it has spent on preliminary engineering work if it reaches an agreement with the state.

Other public-private projects completed or underway, including Route 28 interchanges in Fairfax County and a portion of Route 288 in Powhatan and Goochland counties, also involve little or no private money. The Dulles extension, the first rail project proposed under the public-private law, would be funded entirely with federal, state and local dollars, including more than $1 billion from Fairfax landowners, businesses along the Dulles Toll Road and motorists who use the road.

"There are some real significant issues of secrecy, accountability, conflict of interest and failure to protect the public trust," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which advocates clustered development around transit stations.

Howard Menaker, a Dulles Transit Partners spokesman, said that he could not speak specifically about the lack of investment in the rail project but said that all public-private ventures evolve differently. He also said that although he wasn't familiar with the specifics of the public-private partnership, such arrangements help companies protect fee structures and business strategies that would be valuable to competitors.

"This is the level of confidentiality that the legislature felt was appropriate at the time they passed the public-private partnership act," Menaker said. "I'm not going to second-guess the legislature."

The concerns about secrecy are compounded by a conflict over how the rail line will run through Tysons Corner. Current plans call for an elevated track down the middle of Route 7. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and TysonsTunnel.org, a coalition organized by the McLean Chamber of Commerce, are urging that the process be opened for consideration of a tunnel, which they say would enhance Tysons' evolution into a mature urban center.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has resisted the tunnel option, and an engineering report commissioned by the state concluded that it would be too expensive, time-consuming and technically risky. State officials also say that the delays necessary to consider a tunnel place $900 million in federal funds at risk.

Tunnel advocates say that with the construction consortium's price for the aerial option under wraps, the state's claim of a higher cost for the tunnel is not credible.

"We have all the documents [supporting] the tunnel in the public domain," said Schwartz, referring to a $3.5 million engineering study funded by TysonsTunnel.org.

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