White House Is Faulted for Delay

Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D)
Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) (Dayna Smith - Dayna Smith/ftwp)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Bush administration bias against mass transit projects might be hindering federal approval of the proposed Metro extension to Dulles International Airport, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) charged yesterday.

The Federal Transit Administration is evaluating the project's cost effectiveness to determine whether it qualifies for $900 million in federal money. The agency has expressed concern about the estimated price tag of the project's 11.6-mile first phase, which has grown from $1.52 billion in December 2004 to as much as $2.7 billion.

A U.S. Transportation Department inspector general's report expressed doubts last week about whether the first phase, running from Falls Church through Tysons Corner to Reston, most of which will be financed by Dulles Toll Road user fees and special taxes levied on property owners near the rail line, could meet cost guidelines under the federal New Starts program.

In a luncheon meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters, Connolly said the concerns reflected a general antipathy toward investment in mass transit.

"Like a lot of this administration, we have an EPA that doesn't really believe in the environmental mission. We have an FTA that isn't quite comfortable with its transit mission," Connolly said. "They would love, I suppose, to look at other options other than providing $900 million to this project."

Asked whether he was referring to specific agency officials, Connolly said he was not. FTA Administrator James Simpson, a 2006 White House appointee, was chief executive of a Staten Island, N.Y., long-distance trucking firm and served on the board of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

FTA spokesman Wes Irvin took issue with Connolly's remarks, citing in a statement significant increases in transit spending since the end of the Clinton administration.

"Since 2001, this Administration has increased transit funding by more than 40 percent to a record $8.9 billion," Irvin said. "In addition, we have taken aggressive steps to ensure that these historic funding levels are distributed to the widest range of financially viable projects that stand to benefit the most users."

Local and state officials have expressed impatience with the agency's review process, which is expected to be finished by mid-August. Last week, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which would oversee construction of the rail line, asked federal transit officials for permission to spend state and local money budgeted for the project while waiting for the federal go-ahead to proceed with final design. Beginning today, the airports authority's agreement with Dulles Transit Partners, the private consortium that would build the project, allows for daily increases in costs until federal transit officials approve the final design.

Connolly called the inspector general's report "a troubling sign" but said it was a "rehash of old issues," including criticism of Metro's secondary role in construction plans and the airports authority's ostensible lack of history in building rail lines. Connolly said the authority is highly experienced in complex projects and is working on its own internal subway system.

Overall, Connolly said, it was difficult to know how the agency will come down. "I won't pretend I'm not concerned," he said. "But from a logical point of view, there's no reason why they wouldn't approve this project."

Connolly said that if the Dulles project gets underway, the region's next major transit focus should be the Interstate 66 corridor between Vienna and Centreville, where rail or possibly bus rapid transit could be built along the median. U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) announced last week that the annual transportation spending bill approved by the House includes $500,000 to study bus rapid transit for I-66.

Ultimately, Connolly added, Metro should be extended from Franconia-Springfield to Fort Belvoir, the county's largest employer.

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