As Dulles Rail Staggers, Players Share in Blame
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Over budget and behind schedule, rail to Dulles International Airport is in trouble.
Planned for more than 40 years, the 23-mile Metro extension from Falls Church to Loudoun County is among the region's highest transportation priorities. It would eliminate Washington's unenviable distinction as one of the only major world capitals without rail service to its largest airport. Yet the most critical component to the project's success -- nearly $1 billion in federal funding -- remains in doubt. And so does the fate of the rail line itself.
Lots of blame has been hurled about since a Federal Transit Administration report last week placed the cost of Dulles rail's first phase to Reston at $2.83 billion -- an unacceptable sum under federal cost-efficiency rules. The report also predicted that the project would be completed 15 months later than scheduled, meaning that commuters might not take their first ride until March 2014.
Many familiar with the project's long history say it is on the brink of collapse because of the weight of the nearly dozen entities that have played critical roles over the years. From the tax district of Tysons Corner landowners that will help finance construction to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to Metro to Congress, groups brought their own demands to the table. Each had to be listened to because each was capable, at one time or another, of scuttling the venture.
Many months were lost as those players pursued agendas on such items as station location, pedestrian amenities and the proposed tunnel through Tysons Corner. In so doing, critics say, they diverted their attention from the element essential to the project's success: federal funding. In the meantime, cost estimates continued to tick upward. The higher they soared, the lower the project's chances to qualify for federal dollars. To get the federal money, local and state officials have to prove that the project would attract enough riders to merit the cost.
"People have always said: 'Don't worry. The money will be there,' " said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group that advocates on behalf of businesses for transportation improvements. "It has always been something that's been pushed to the back burner. Suddenly, the back burner has become the front burner."
Now, state and local officials must trim about $275 million from the project or lose federal funding. All say they are committed to doing so. Failure to meet the federal requirements, they say, would not only paralyze the region's roads for a generation but also cripple its economy.
"How can our nation's capital connect to the global economy and assume a leadership role in the world without a simple, easy connection to its international airport?" asked Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer. "We are the leader of the global economy. What happens when our leadership gets caught in traffic and can't get to the international airport? That's an embarrassing future to contemplate."
The tunnel controversy is an easy target in the search for blame. Studied and discarded years ago as too costly, the tunnel reemerged as an option last year when Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) sent a letter to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) declaring that a closer look was warranted. Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) joined the tunnel supporters.
The tunnel discussion created a groundswell of grass-roots activism, with advocates for new urbanism declaring that an aboveground track would ruin all chances to remake car-dominated Tysons Corner into a livable, workable downtown for Northern Virginia. Behind the scenes was WestGroup, a Tysons landowner with dramatic plans to develop property along the rail line -- plans that would be handicapped by aerial tracks. Although TysonsTunnel.org has collected more than 20,000 signatures since last year, it also has spent $3.5 million of WestGroup's money on the campaign.
FTA officials say the tunnel discussion set the project back as much as a year. During that time, dramatic inflation among such commodities as steel and asphalt accounted for much of the cost increases.
Some who encouraged study of a tunnel acknowledge their role in delaying the project but defend the exercise as politically necessary.