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Tunnel Loses Backers as Landowners Unite for Growth

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

Tysons Corner property owners along the route of the long-sought extension of Metrorail to Dulles International Airport have created a coalition to launch a public campaign to secure federal funding for the project and increase development in the area.

The consortium, called Tysons Tomorrow, will include as many as 20 landowners poised to develop a new city of high-rises around the four Metro stops planned for Tysons. The emergence of the group, which held its first meeting last week, is also intended to weaken the coalition that has staged a heavily financed, year-long effort to build a tunnel under Tysons that would bury the rail tracks. Plans now call for an aerial track, and the effort to alter that plan has been blamed for jeopardizing approval of the 23-mile line.

"I think all of us would say, 'Of course we like the tunnel,' " said Jonathan Cherner, who, with his father and brother, owns Cherner Automotive Group on Route 7 in the heart of Tysons. "But the Federal Transit Administration came back and said, 'If you want to do a major engineering change to the project, you got to go to the back of the line and start over.' That process is almost a 10-year process. We don't need mass transit in 20 years. We needed mass transit 20 years ago."

Tysons business owners had been virtually united in seeking underground tracks, hoping for a new urbanism and fearful that an aboveground track would ruin any chance to remake the car-dominated area into a livable, workable downtown for Northern Virginia. Tunnel opponents have said the underground option would cost too much, take too long and jeopardize federal funding.

The business coalition is also seeking to end the pressure from tunnel advocates because they fear the push could cause further delays and scuttle the project.

The landowners, as well as state and local officials, are anxiously eyeing the FTA, which is expected to decide in coming weeks whether to approve the project's estimated $2.8 billion first phase. If the rail venture clears the FTA's bar, it would be financed with state and local taxes, receipts from the Dulles Toll Road, the proceeds of a special real estate taxing district in Tysons and a $900 million federal grant. All agree that, without the federal dollars, the project is dead.

Much more than transportation relief is at stake. Also in the mix are billions of dollars of new real estate, millions of square feet of condos, stores and offices and the potential transformation of Tysons, Virginia's largest jobs center.

Support for the project may be building in other ways. TysonsTunnel.org, which has led the fight against the project's aerial design, filed a lawsuit against the FTA last week, seeking a new competitive bidding process. But the action appears to have lost steam. On Wednesday, the day after the suit was filed, the sole business serving as plaintiff, Ratner Cos., withdrew. And WestGroup, a developer that has contributed more than $3 million to TysonsTunnel.org, issued a statement disavowing any role in the lawsuit.

WestGroup's plans to redevelop property in Tysons depend heavily on a tunnel, and the company continues to display large banners with pro-tunnel messages on its commercial properties. But it is not interested in abandoning the entire rail line in pursuit of that goal, spokesman Mark Lowham said.

The so-called Silver Line first would extend from the East Falls Church Metro station on the Orange Line in Arlington County to Wiehle Avenue in Reston; it is scheduled for completion in 2012. The second phase, expected to be done in 2015, would extend the line beyond the airport into Loudoun County. The total price tag for both phases exceeds $5 billion.

William D. Lecos, Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce president, said he doubts the lawsuit, which raises the same issues that TysonsTunnel.org has argued for months, will have any impact on federal approval. FTA spokesman Wes Irvin declined to comment on the suit.

Cherner and other landowners in Tysons have remained quiet through much of the tunnel vs. aerial debate, in part to avoid calling attention to the handsome profits likely to result if the rail line is built. Supported by virtually all public officials in Virginia, including Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R), it has been touted as essential to relieving regional traffic congestion and allowing Northern Virginia's economy to grow.

But there is little debate that the rail line will also serve the private interests of a few landowners, including commercial giants Lerner Enterprises and Macerich Corp. (which own the two malls in Tysons Corner) and mom-and-pop owners of smaller parcels scattered across the area.

"People forget that a lot of the land in Tysons has been held by families and family trusts for 50 or 60 years," Lecos said. "It's two acres here, two acres there. It isn't 50 or 200 acres."

Tysons Tomorrow's membership will feature the smaller landowners, said Lecos, who has been a strong booster for rail and is helping to organize the new group. He and others said that if the project dies, many of those owners would develop their land in keeping with the current Tysons pattern: suburban, car-dominated and unfriendly to pedestrians.

"You can expect that Tysons will not change," said Aaron Georgelas of the Georgelas Group, which owns or controls about 25 acres and plans to redevelop with or without rail. "It will be a suburban office park just like it is today. There will be no interconnectivity, no walkability. Both of those things would change with rail."

Irvin, of the FTA, said that the status of the project hasn't changed. The agency is reviewing the state's application for federal funding and is working with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which will oversee construction, to bring the cost within federal efficiency guidelines, he said. Final design approval, if it comes, is possible in the next few weeks, Irvin said.

After that looms another battle: how densely the Tysons landowners will be permitted to build. The Tysons Land Use Task Force has been working for three years to determine the balance of housing, retail and office space.

The task force is expected to deliver its recommendations to the county Planning Commission by April. The final decision will fall to the county Board of Supervisors.

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