Airports Authority Signs Deal to Initiate Transit Project

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority signed a contract yesterday that will launch the first half of a 23-mile Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport, committing the region to a $5.1 billion transit project to be funded primarily with local taxes and tolls.

The contract calls explicitly for an above-ground segment through Tysons Corner, effectively silencing local efforts supporting a tunnel to encourage a more pedestrian-friendly, aesthetic revamping of Northern Virginia's largest business district.

The only hope left for tunnel advocates is for Fairfax County to kill the project by voting not to commit its $400 million share of the funding for the first phase. Such a vote could cause the design and bidding process to begin again. But a majority of supervisors made clear this week that a "no" vote is unlikely, given the risks of delaying the project for several more years and losing $900 million in federal funding.

"A 'yes' vote keeps hope alive," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "A 'no' vote kills the project and the tunnel, too." Fairfax is scheduled to vote June 18.

The Dulles Metrorail extension has been called the region's top transportation priority by the airports authority and local and state leaders. Supporters say direct Metro service will not only lend prestige to the region's international airport but also take vehicles off Northern Virginia's congested highways and open its suburban business districts to more urban, transit-oriented development.

The first leg of the project, which will cost $2.7 billion, will extend Metro's Orange Line from just west of the East Falls Church stop in Arlington through Tysons Corner to Reston. The second phase will extend the line across the Loudoun County border to the airport. Work on the first phase will begin this summer with the relocation of utility lines along Route 7. The initial phase is scheduled for completion in 2013. The second phase is expected to finish by 2016.

The project has attracted plenty of criticism, notably for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's decision last year to allow the above-ground design at Tysons to move forward. The option of a tunnel was rejected as too costly, but supporters have been packing meetings and advertising on TV and radio and in newspapers to revive the idea.

Critics also questioned the decision to allow the airports authority to manage the project on behalf of the state. They accused the organization of a conflict of interest, saying its desire to quickly build a rail link to the airport might take precedence over other options. The authority also is exempt from certain public-records requirements, said critics, who pointed out that much of the contract negotiation with the private building consortium Dulles Transit Partners was done in secret.

"We remain strongly opposed to MWAA's control of this project because of their lack of accountability," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Schwartz has been a strong supporter of a tunnel. He also thinks the above-ground stations through Tysons are being designed without regard to the goal of encouraging ridership and building mixed-use, urban-style communities.

"What's the point of doing it if we don't do it right?" he said.

The lack of competitive bidding on the project -- allowed under Virginia law for certain transportation projects -- also has raised concerns. The Dulles Metrorail extension is the most expensive transit project in progress in the nation, costlier than the infamous Second Avenue subway line in New York City, which has been planned for more than 30 years, said William Vincent of the Breakthrough Technology Institute, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for cost-effective and environmentally sensitive transit.

"The Dulles line is now more expensive, but it will attract less than half the number of passengers as the Second Avenue subway," Vincent said.

And the cost is likely to rise. Officials with the airports authority say the $5.1 billion estimate includes preliminary numbers for the second phase. The extension from Reston to the airport is likely to be financed largely through higher tolls on the Dulles Toll Road. The tolls are scheduled to rise to as much as $5 by 2055 as part of the rail plan.

"We're not saying that 15 years out, that's going to be a final cost of the project," said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the authority.

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