Fairfax County's Metro Mistake Looms Over Tysons Corner

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, June 23, 2007

That old saying "This is no way to run a railroad" popped into mind when I learned that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors cast a pragmatic vote this week, seemingly burying the option of tunneling Metrorail through Tysons Corner on its way to Dulles International Airport.

A tunnel has been strongly favored by almost everyone except the team of contractors designing the elevated rail line.

How sad to see such a major mistake, one that will persist for generations, being made because of a complicated decision-making process, reticent government leadership, regulatory deadlines and, above all, money. A rail connection to Dulles has been envisioned ever since the airport opened in the early 1960s, making this eleventh-hour mistake even more regrettable.

Yielding to intense financing and time pressures, all but two supervisors agreed to pay the county's $400 million share of the more than $5 billion to extend Metrorail's Orange Line from West Falls Church. The vote was needed to allow construction of the rail line's first phase to begin in 2008, including the controversial overhead line through Tysons.

Perhaps the supervisors deserve a bit of sympathy because they may have felt they had no other choice. Without Monday's affirmative vote, they were told by state officials, contractors and the Federal Transit Administration that the whole extension project, along with 13 years of planning, could come to a halt. Design changes and more delays could jeopardize the crucial $900 million of federal funding.

State officials and contractors also have continually claimed that building a tunnel through Tysons is geotechnically risky and too expensive.

Yet tunnel advocates, engineering experts and construction specialists have prepared exhaustive studies and presented voluminous evidence showing that a tunnel would be both technically and economically feasible, thanks to modern tunnel-building technology. They say it might even prove to be less costly and more quickly built than an elevated line.

County supervisors are familiar with the tunnel issues. But they undoubtedly understand the aesthetic issue, too: A rail line passing through a city should be in a tunnel rather than overhead.

And a city is what the county wants Tysons Corner to become. Supervisors are committed to transforming the area into a dense, walkable, functionally diverse "downtown" encompassing hundreds of acres where tens of thousands can live, work and enjoy all the amenities a city can offer.

They undoubtedly appreciate the compelling architectural, urban-design and environmental reasons for not running viaducts or rail lines overhead in dense areas. They are aware that elevated lines in cities are being removed to eliminate noise, vibration, pollution, costly maintenance and, most important, visual barriers separating neighborhoods.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is not alone in knowing all this. The governor of Virginia, the Virginia delegation on Capitol Hill and some state transportation officials must know it, as must officials of the Federal Transit Administration. Certainly, Metro and the regional airports authority are in the know.

Thus, if tunneling Metrorail through Tysons is truly the right strategy, as many political officials have publicly acknowledged, why not make it happen? After all, this is not a piece of depreciable real estate to be written off in 20 or 30 years, but rather an infrastructure investment meant to serve for a century or more. This project's quality and benefits shouldn't be compromised to save a year, or even to save a few hundred million dollars.

Why have Virginia's political leaders not engaged the White House and Congress in an effort to gain additional time and, if necessary, additional federal money to build the tunnel? Where is the can-do American spirit that produced the Pentagon in less than two years, the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge and the Panama Canal?

The Dulles rail line extension and Tysons Corner are being victimized by a fragmented, bottom-line-fixated process that reflects the region's political fragmentation. The project has too many "owners": Virginia; Fairfax and Loudoun counties; the airports authority; the Federal Transit Administration; and, once built, Metro, which must operate the line.

In a more perfect world, the Metro line to Dulles would be considered a regional enterprise serving 4 million people, and not just a Virginia project. It would be regionally financed. And it would be designed, built and operated by a single regional transportation authority, working in collaboration with affected jurisdictions but relatively free of the competing political interests and managerial controls now exercised by state and local governments.

Unfortunately, the interjurisdictional compact that established Metro decades ago ensures that this can't happen.

Unless brave political souls, those genuinely able to control or influence the Dulles rail project, jointly commit to build the tunnel and liberate themselves from the constraints of a flawed process, Tysons Corner will have an overhead rail line running through it.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company