Supporters of Metro Tunnel Face Uphill Climb With Board

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Hundreds of people crowded before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors yesterday hoping for one last chance to demand a tunnel instead of an overhead track through the Tysons Corner portion of the proposed Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport.

What they got instead was a nearly unanimous message from supervisors that the chances for a tunnel are so slim that for them to oppose an aerial line now is tantamount to killing the project for good.

"A tunnel or nothing? That's not my position," said board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). "I happen to think a yes vote is the only way to keep this project alive. If we vote no, the project is dead, and the tunnel is dead with it."

At issue is the board's scheduled June 18 vote to commit to the first installment of the county's $900 million share of the Dulles rail project. The rail line would extend from just west of the East Falls Church station through Tysons Corner to the airport; the first phase, scheduled to start construction in August, would run to Wiehle Avenue in Reston.

Tunnel supporters, and some supervisors, want the board to vote no June 18 in an effort to spend more time studying the tunnel option. They also believe too little information about the current contract, with the aerial option, has been made public.

Particularly frustrating to some is that under the contract, the current price for the project, $2.65 billion, is good only until June 19 -- the day after supervisors are scheduled to vote. Meanwhile, supervisors have yet to see the proposed contract from Dulles Transit Partners, the private consortium planning to build the project.

"I am astounded that Fairfax County's elected officials have not seen the contract yet and that a gun is being held to their heads to vote on June 18th," said Stewart Schwartz, a tunnel supporter and executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. Schwartz believes an aerial line running down the median of Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) will ruin the opportunity to remake Tysons Corner into a pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented business and residential district.

Several supervisors, including Connolly, agreed that they will vote no June 18 if they haven't seen the contract yet. Representatives of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is negotiating the contract on behalf of the state, assured supervisors that they will get it by then. And most supervisors said that if the contract is delivered, they will proceed with the vote in two weeks. Not to do so, several said, jeopardizes the entire project.

First, supervisors said, three separate analyses have concluded that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars more to dig a tunnel instead of building an aerial line. Also, designing a tunnel could force engineers to design the project all over again and slog through the required environmental impact statements. That delay, in turn, would cause the project to lose its place in line for federal funding. About $900 million would come from the federal government.

Connolly conceded that there is only a small chance that a tunnel could emerge if Fairfax does sign off on its share of the project cost June 18. But it's more of a chance if supervisors vote no.

Since Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) rejected the tunnel plan in the fall, tunnel supporters have been urging state and local officials to reconsider. The Federal Transit Administration said last week that it will not reconsider placing the segment through Tysons Corner underground. The supporters, who have been advertising on TV and in newspapers, packed yesterday's Fairfax board meeting for a briefing on the project by Connolly. There was no opportunity for public comment.

In other business yesterday, supervisors revised county building regulations to require homeowners seeking to expand their homes by 100 percent or more or who demolish at least 50 percent of their home's area to go through all the permitting requirements of a new home.

The board's purpose is to crack down on an increasingly prevalent practice in Fairfax County in which homeowners seek permits to build an addition on their home but in many cases actually tear down most of the home and put up a new one in its place.

Not only are such homes often much larger than their neighbors -- and unpopular with other residents -- but they often retain older connections for water, sewer and electrical service that are not adequate to serve the larger homes.

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