Fairfax Votes For Overhead Metro Link To Dulles

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 2 yesterday to help pay for a 23-mile extension of Metro to Dulles International Airport with an overhead track through busy Tysons Corner, angering tunnel advocates but keeping alive plans for traffic-congestion relief along one of the Washington area's critical economic corridors.

Supervisors in the region's largest jurisdiction agreed to pay $400 million toward the $5.1 billion cost of extending the Orange Line from Falls Church through Tysons and Reston to the airport. To do otherwise, they said, would have jeopardized nearly $1 billion of federal money and with it all hope of rail to the airport for a generation to come.

"Rail to Dulles is the single most important investment that this board or any board before us is ever going to make," said Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D).

"It is truly a legacy," he said. "It is the most important employment corridor, investment corridor, in all of Northern Virginia, and it is the second most important employment corridor in all of metropolitan Washington. It is not served by rail. It is not integrated into the main Metrorail system. It must be -- for our future and for that of the entire region."

At issue for Fairfax was whether to commit to a project that has been in detailed planning stages for more than a decade and that calls for 11 new stations between the East Falls Church Station and Loudoun County -- eight in Fairfax and three, including at the airport, in Loudoun. All stations are planned to be aboveground, and four stations in the heart of Tysons are expected to reach roughly 40 feet in the air.

The alternative was to reject the project in hopes of reexamining the feasibility of a tunnel through Tysons.

Tunnel advocates, backed by Tysons developer and landowner WestGroup, have proclaimed loudly for months that an elevated track would dash hopes of remaking Tysons into a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly urban district, where people could live, work, shop and play without driving a car.

"What my constituents have is a vision of the future, of what Tysons could be," said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), whose district includes Tysons. "That vision is going to be very, very different with an elevated line that will cut through, right through, the middle of Tysons. It's going to make it much more difficult for us to get the kind of transit-oriented development there that we're trying to do."

Smyth joined T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) in dissent.

Scott A. Monett, president of TysonsTunnel.org, said: "Obviously, we would like to see some leadership. Everybody says a tunnel is better, but nobody will stop this because they don't want to be the one who kills rail to Dulles. We're supposed to be getting the best deal we can get, but it doesn't appear that anybody has tried very hard."

Dulles rail backers, meanwhile, say that although a tunnel would be preferable, the option was studied and discarded as too expensive years ago. To stop the process now to reexamine a tunnel would cause Virginia to lose its place in line for $900 million of federal money.

There's also no guarantee that the state would agree to start the project over with the engineering and environmental studies that would be required to examine a tunnel. In a sobering letter to Connolly last week, Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer wrote: "You have asked me to address a question that has been asked repeatedly: What happens if Fairfax County fails to approve its financial commitment to the Dulles corridor Metrorail project? The simple answer is that the project would stop, with little or no prospect of revival in the foreseeable future."

Even now, the project must clear final design approval from the Federal Transit Administration. A decision is expected this year.

The Dulles rail project is expected to be funded through contributions from Fairfax and Loudoun counties, the state, the regional airports authority and the federal government.

Loudoun has yet to commit to its share of the project, but by all accounts the project will go forward with or without its participation. Without it, the project probably would be redesigned to exclude stations in Loudoun except at the airport.

Rail to Dulles has been in idea form since the airport opened in 1962. Even then, planners recommended reserving the median of the Dulles Airport Access Road for rail; today, much of the extension is expected to use that median.

Work on the first phase, from Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, is scheduled to begin this fall with utility relocation along Route 7 in Tysons and end in 2013. Phase Two is expected to be finished by 2016.

Originally, the line was routed directly from Arlington County to the Access Road, with no diversion through Tysons. Critics have argued that the detour is partly to blame for the project's significant cost escalation (more than $1 billion in the past year), forcing taxpayers to fund service that would vastly increase property values for a small handful of commercial landowners in Tysons.

But proponents of the four stops through Tysons say rail is essential for the business district to remain strong. They also note that, according to engineering reports, those stops are expected to generate most of the line's new ridership and have the greatest potential to take vehicles off the area's congested roads.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company