Fate of Dulles Metro Line to Be Discussed Today

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is scheduled to join the state's U.S. senators and Northern Virginia's congressmen at a meeting today with U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to learn whether the proposed Metro extension to Dulles International Airport can be saved, state and federal officials said yesterday.

The $5 billion project needs $900 million in federal money to move forward, but backers say they are alarmed that reservations among Federal Transit Administration officials could scuttle the plan. The FTA is to decide in the next week whether to approve money for the rail line.

Sens. John W. Warner (R) and James Webb (D) and Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R), James P. Moran Jr. (D) and Thomas M. Davis III (R) wrote their second letter in a week Tuesday to FTA chief James S. Simpson asking the agency to explain its concerns.

The lawmakers say they are frustrated because they thought many of the issues had been resolved.

"It's been a moving target as to what the one issue is that's holding the project up," said a senior congressional official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are at a sensitive point. "It seems as though with each conversation, the goal post gets moved."

In phone conversations with the congressional delegation in recent days, Simpson and other FTA officials said a main concern is whether the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has the experience and technical staff to manage the complexities of a 23-mile extension to one of the nation's largest and busiest transit systems, according to the lawmakers' letter.

FTA officials also questioned whether Metro is financially positioned to operate the new line in addition to its existing system. The officials said they wondered whether the Dulles Toll Road, which is operated by the airports authority, can generate enough money to pay for the rail project's second phase from Reston to the airport, which is the current financing plan.

The FTA has also raised other issues privately, officials said. They have questioned whether a $300 million cut to the project's cost estimate, undertaken by the state last year, is large enough to meet federal efficiency guidelines.

"All of these issues have been addressed through some form of prior FTA approval," the lawmakers said in their letter. "We are concerned that FTA may be revisiting issues that were addressed months or even years ago."

FTA spokesman Wes Irvin said the agency is reviewing the letter, but he declined to comment on the meeting planned for this morning. He said the FTA plans to make a decision by the end of this month.

Project backers also say they are worried about continued efforts to put the rail line underground through the Tysons Corner portion of the project and whether that is slowing the approval process. Kaine decided in 2006 to forgo a tunnel despite broad public support because of the risk of adding costs and delays.

But last week, two Northern Virginia officials, state Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) and Fairfax Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville), sent letters to the FTA urging a "time-out" so the tunnel idea could be studied.

There are also lingering concerns over the project's primary contractor, Bechtel. The company had a lead role in the "Big Dig" in Boston, which ran billions of dollars over budget and became known for shoddy workmanship.

The initial phase of the Silver Line, for which the airports authority is seeking federal funding, would extend from the East Falls Church Metro station on the Orange Line in Arlington County to Wiehle Avenue in Reston; it is scheduled to be completed in 2012. The second phase, expected to be done in 2015, would extend beyond the airport into Loudoun County.

The total price tag for both phases exceeds $5 billion.

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