Contract Set for Rail Line To Dulles
Saturday, March 31, 2007
Virginia transportation officials announced an agreement yesterday with a private contractor to begin construction of Metro's expansion to Dulles International Airport next spring, delivering a possibly fatal blow to a group of Northern Virginia residents and businesses who had sought to change the plan so that the elevated segment through Tysons Corner would run underground.
The deal, struck by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and Dulles Transit Partners, a construction consortium headed by Bechtel Inc., concluded weeks of contentious closed-door negotiations to contain the cost of the project so that it would qualify for federal money. Talks stalled so seriously at one point that state officials set an April 5 deadline.
The intensive bargaining still leaves the final price tag unclear. State officials had indicated that design and construction would be done for a "fixed price." But yesterday's accord offers only an estimate: between $2.4 billion and $2.7 billion for the first phase of the project, from a point just east of West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston.
Only $1.1 billion of that is a fixed price payable to Dulles Transit Partners. The balance is far from settled. That includes $900 million in federal funding officials expect to secure after they submit their final application to the Federal Transit Administration in May. The rest will come from property owners along the rail line -- pending approval by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors -- and Northern Virginia commuters who use the Dulles Toll Road every day. Any overruns would also be covered by toll payments from motorists.
Serious obstacles remain to be cleared before the first shovel of dirt is turned. The Federal Transit Administration, which sets what it calls "cost-effectiveness" criteria for funding of local transit projects, said in a statement late yesterday afternoon that the delay in reaching an agreement "significantly impacted" the schedule the state agreed to last fall.
The agency also said that given "the many uncertainties" that the project has faced, it will seek an independent review of the financial plan before it approves any funding. Officials offered no timetable for the review.
State officials expressed confidence that they will meet any federal concerns about the project's cost.
"We welcome the review of the Dulles project's budget by an independent entity that FTA will appoint, and we will work with FTA to help keep this project on schedule," said Marcia McAllister, a spokeswoman for the Dulles project.
A coalition of Fairfax officials, business leaders and residents pressed hard during the past year to reopen the project's design for inclusion of a tunnel under Tysons Corner. Advocates said that the current plan for an elevated track, with concrete pillars as high as six stories going down Route 7, will hinder the area's evolution into a mature urban center. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) seriously entertained the tunnel idea last year until he was warned by federal transit officials and Northern Virginia congressmen that reopening the project placed federal funding at risk.
The pro-tunnel group, TysonsTunnel.org, lobbied state and local officials assiduously, even commissioning a $3.5 million engineering study showing that an underground rail line was economically and technically feasible.
But as a practical matter, the one remaining opening for the tunnel was the possibility that the state and the contractors would not be able to get the price under the federal threshold with an aboveground design. That would have sent the entire project back to square one and created an opening for a redesign that included a tunnel.
Yesterday's announcement would seem to have shut the last remaining door on the tunnel plan.
"This is both good news and bad news," Fairfax County Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said of the agreement. "The good news is that it's a milestone for moving the project forward. The bad news is that it makes the incline for the tunnel this much steeper."
Still, Connolly and other tunnel advocates were not willing to concede defeat. Scott Monnett, president of TysonsTunnel.org, said in a statement yesterday that with only $1.1 billion of the project under a fixed price, the current $2.4 billion to $2.7 billion estimate "becomes a floor upon which the contractor can extract higher prices at a later date."
"That is not the proper way to procure a multibillion-dollar public project," Monnett said
The estimated total cost, which could reach $2.7 billion, is considerably higher than the $2.1 billion cited just a few months ago. It also exceeds estimates for building the extension with a tunnel under Tysons, which run from $2 billion to $2.5 billion.
State rail director Matthew Tucker dismissed the tunnel estimates as unrefined and uninformed and said that proposal has not gone through the "rigorous analysis" the current plan has faced. "No one knows what the price will be for the tunnel," Tucker said.
Other Fairfax officials said they had many questions about the accord before they were prepared to sign off.
"Where's the firm and fixed price?" asked Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), an outspoken advocate for the tunnel. "Less than half of it is firm and fixed."
Kauffman expressed concern that as the plan is currently constituted, escalating costs would force Dulles Transit Partners to drop key pedestrian-friendly features from the project, such as walkways. As it stands, Kauffman said, he will vote against approval.
"I can go along with a budget, I can hold my nose on a land use-case, but I can't ignore the multiple-decade impact of not doing the right or cost-conscious thing on the biggest capital project our county is likely to ever see," he said.
Escalating costs remain a major concern. Over the past three years, the price of construction materials and components has increased 22 percent. By the end of this year, material costs could rise again at a rate between 6 and 8 percent, said Kenneth Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America.
Staff writers Amy Gardner and Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.