Growing Cost Could Jeopardize Federal Funds

The Dulles rail project, which will go through Tysons Corner, above, is over budget and behind schedule, but Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said officials are
The Dulles rail project, which will go through Tysons Corner, above, is over budget and behind schedule, but Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said officials are "very confident that we can make changes that will meet [federal] approval." (Kgp Design Studio, Washington)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Virginia must cut at least $250 million off the price tag of the first leg of Metrorail service to Dulles International Airport to meet the Federal Transit Administration's cost-efficiency guidelines and qualify for crucial U.S. funding, officials said yesterday.

Federal officials warned in a report released yesterday that the first phase of Dulles rail service -- from East Falls Church through Tysons Corner to Reston -- is late and over budget, saying it would now cost $2.83 billion and take about 15 months longer to complete than previously estimated.

"They need a more realistic price tag and a more realistic schedule," said FTA spokesman Wes Irvin. "The schedule is driving up the cost."

The FTA's long-awaited assessment shows that the project's cost is $1 billion higher than it was two years ago. The report also presents more evidence that the project is not assured of receiving $900 million in federal transit money that state and local leaders need to build the line.

Still, officials overseeing the project said they viewed the report as good news that gives them specific instructions on how to pass federal muster. The report represents a final step in the lengthy approval process for federal funding, and state officials said they are certain they can sufficiently shave the project's budget and schedule.

"This report gives us a clear sense of the size and scope of changes to the project that we need to make," said Pierce R. Homer, Virginia's transportation secretary. "We're very confident that we can make changes that will meet FTA approval."

But that might not be as easy as it sounds. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is managing the Dulles rail project for Virginia, must avoid cuts, such as eliminating a station, that could reduce ridership because that would affect the FTA's cost-efficiency calculations.

Yet the airports authority also must be mindful to avoid the type of nip or tuck that rail supporters would decry, such as eliminating pedestrian walkways, attractive architectural features or extra elevators and escalators intended to make stations more accessible. Two years ago, the state proposed about $200 million in such trims but abandoned them after business owners in Tysons Corner, where four stations are planned, objected. Tysons landowners will help pay for Dulles rail through a special taxing district.

Homer said project officials probably would look to cut a parking garage in Reston that could be paid for with contributions from developers, improvements to Route 7 through Tysons that the state could fund with separate money, and a rail car storage facility.

Irvin said any proposed cost reductions would have to be approved by the federal government. He also said the FTA can come back with additional comments requiring further action before it allocates money.

Homer said he hopes for final design approval this year. If that occurs, construction could begin next year, although the airports authority intends to start utility work along Route 7 in Tysons this fall.

The 23-mile rail line's first phase will extend to Wiehle Avenue in Reston and is expected to be completed by 2012. The second phase, which was not addressed in yesterday's report, would extend beyond the airport, with two stops in Loudoun County. The full project will cost more than $5 billion and is scheduled to be done by 2015.

Planning for rail to Dulles began more than 40 years ago, not long after the airport opened. The project has been beset with delays, most recently when a developer launched a grass-roots campaign to demand that the line be tunneled through Tysons Corner.

Current plans call for an aerial line through Tysons. Opponents argue that an aerial line will dash any hopes of remaking Tysons, the nation's 12th-largest business district, into a more thriving downtown. Supporters say that studying a tunnel again would delay the project, drive up its cost and jeopardize federal funding. All agree that without the $900 million, the project would die -- and yesterday's news reinforced that idea, particularly among business leaders eager for the project to move forward.

"This reinforces [our] position that while a tunnel would be nice, it is not affordable," said James C. Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "The federal government is not willing to fund it."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company