As Dulles Rail Staggers, Players Share in Blame
Delays, Cost Run-Ups and a Threatened Loss of Funds Combine to Cloud the Project's Future

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"We had an obligation to look thoroughly at the tunnel option," said Connolly, who ultimately supported the aerial alignment to save the project. The tunnel is "clearly the preferable way to go if it's feasible. But at the end of the day, it was determined not to be feasible."

Other tunnel supporters deny harming the process.

"We've done nothing to delay this project. We've done nothing to undercut this thing. Zero," Davis said. He has tried to revive the tunnel in discussions with the FTA and, more recently, told the tunnel lobby to be prepared with their proposal if the current project "goes south." Davis cited the state's tardiness in completing its application as a more harmful factor to Dulles rail.

"The only one who has delayed this project is the governor," he said.

It is true that the tunnel was not the only cause of project delays. Long before that debate, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation was missing deadlines for submissions to the FTA. The agency had never managed such a large project -- one reason the state has since agreed to transfer management to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. The authority not only has construction management experience, but it also agreed to pay for a large portion of the project through collections on the Dulles Toll Road, which it would manage as well.

Homer said most of the delays under Virginia's watch resulted from allowing interest groups to have a say.

"Open deliberation has consequences for timelines, and that was certainly the case here," he said. "Democracy is messy. Accommodating citizen inquiries and legitimate interests takes time. If we're going to ask private landowners to pay 25 percent of the cost of this, they're going to rightfully ask for a voice."

The transfer to the airports authority also took time. So did demands by Fairfax to change the project's alignment along Route 7 and Metro's requests that the stations be built with certain materials for ease of maintenance.

So, too, did the hoops that the FTA imposed on the process, including an independent review by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general. Many involved say the FTA is assigned too little blame for its role in the project's struggles.

"There seemed to be new hurdles, new objections, every step of the way," said Chris Zimmerman (D), a member of the Arlington County Board and the Metro board.

Others place the blame for cost escalation squarely at the feet of the project's no-bid contract. Under the terms of the state's Public-Private Transportation Act, Virginia negotiated the contract with a consortium called Dulles Transit Partners, which was chosen years ago in a competitive process to perform preliminary project design.

Even if the project squeaks past the cost-efficiency standards required to get the federal money, it might do so at a cost of valuable station amenities, such as extra escalators and elevators or pedestrian facilities. Homer has said he expects to focus on trims that will not hurt ridership or that can be financed through other means, such as a rail car yard, a parking deck in Reston and road improvements in Tysons.

But the trims must be approved by all the entities that have made the process so complicated in the first place, including Fairfax and Loudoun supervisors, Metro and the airports authority.

"You reach a point where the cost outweighs the benefit," said Fairfax Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). "And if we don't get on with it, we'll get to that point pretty quickly."

Staff writer Bill Turque contributed to this report.

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