Dulles Rail Project All but Dead
Friday, January 25, 2008
The federal government will not fund the Metro extension to Dulles International Airport without drastic changes, officials said yesterday, effectively scuttling a $5 billion project planned for more than 40 years and widely considered crucial to the region's economic future.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and Federal Transit Administration chief James S. Simpson stunned Virginia politicians at a meeting on Capitol Hill yesterday when they outlined what Simpson called "an extraordinarily large set of challenges" that disqualifies the project from receiving $900 million in federal money. Without that, the project would die.
"The sheer number and magnitude of the current project's technical, financial and institutional risks and uncertainties are unprecedented," Simpson wrote yesterday in a follow-up letter to Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). "I have serious concerns whether it would be appropriate to continue further investment."
Kaine said Virginia officials and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is managing the project, would address the concerns of Simpson and Peters by Monday. But several project supporters, including state and congressional officials, said privately that it would not be possible to meet all of the federal government's demands. The federal and state governments have spent more than $140 million in planning the rail line.
The news sent shock waves through the region's political and business establishments, which have been promoting the need for a rail connection between the nation's capital and its major international airport since the 1960s. The line was expected to ease congestion through Virginia's biggest jobs corridor and also help it grow by stimulating a transformation of suburban Tysons Corner into a thriving downtown.
"It's an economic engine," said James C. Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "It offers the opportunity for sustained economic development, access to affordable housing, access to jobs, access to a world-class airport, an emergency evacuation route west and, most importantly, a key element in reducing congestion in the second-most congested region in the country."
Simpson's letter raised issues that go to the core of the project. They include its cost, which has ballooned over years of planning; the ability of the airports authority to manage such a large transit construction project when it has never done so; and the ability of Metro to absorb the extension into an existing system that is underfunded and needs repairs.
Simpson emphasized his concerns about Metro, likening the Dulles expansion to putting a two-room addition onto a house that is falling down. "First, you have to fix the house," he said later at a news conference. "Metro's operational issues have become really serious over the last several months," he said. "I spent several hours with senior staff at Metro talking about their unfunded needs. They're holding up some of their subway stations with jacks. They're holding other subway stations up with two-by-fours and plywood. I could go on."
Metro does not have a dedicated source of funding for federal projects, but General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. told federal officials yesterday that the agency has the ability to operate the extension.
Simpson said he and other transit officials have raised such concerns before. But project backers said they felt blindsided by yesterday's arguments, and they accused Simpson of raising issues at the eleventh hour on subjects that project officials have repeatedly addressed.
Kaine and U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), speaking after the closed-door meeting, said they look forward to responding to the FTA's concerns. But one senior congressional official described Warner as "livid" at the meeting, and a state official who spoke to Kaine afterward described him as "extremely disappointed and frustrated."
"The FTA made it very clear today to the delegation that they are going to say no to this project," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to anger the transit agency. "And the senator made it very clear that, given how obvious it is that members of Congress find this to be an incredibly important project -- and have for 30 years -- FTA probably should have set off some flares a lot earlier than this."
Added Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer, who attended yesterday's meeting: "Many of the issues that were raised today were heard for the first time by the congressional delegation, the governor and the project team, and that is disappointing."
One group not disappointed with yesterday's news is the coalition of community activists who have been pushing for a tunnel through the Tysons Corner segment of the project. Project planners instead decided on an elevated track, saying that a tunnel would cost too much and jeopardize federal funds. Tunnel supporters have been pushing for a timeout on the project to give a tunnel more study.
"This is an opportunity for us to make the best of this and see if we can't get the project corrected," said Scott Monett of TysonsTunnel.org. "We can still move Dulles rail forward -- with a tunnel."
But another group, composed of the landowners and developers poised to remake Tysons Corner with walkable streets lined with high-rise offices and condominiums, expressed disappointment about the federal response. "Boy, have our public officials let you, me and the entire region down," said Jonathan Cherner, a co-owner of Cherner Automotive Group, a car dealership on Route 7 in Tysons Corner.
If the FTA rejects the Dulles project, most backers say it could not carry on without the $900 million in federal money. The state would be left to decide whether to reapply and start over or give up on Dulles rail forever. It would be years, even in the best of circumstances, before a rail line could come this close to reality again.
Simpson said the FTA would not make a final decision on Dulles rail funding until Kaine and the congressional delegation have had a chance to respond to his concerns. The agency's initial promise to render a decision by the end of January is on hold, he said.
But that could cause more problems. The contract to build the rail line has an escalation clause beginning Feb. 1. If it kicks in, it would probably cause the state to terminate the contract and start that process over again.
State officials will probably respond to the federal concerns with documentation showing that the FTA has previously raised many of the same issues and that project planners have addressed them.
Another possibility is for Congress to grant an exemption from the regulations governing the FTA's New Starts program, from which Dulles is seeking the $900 million. The money is intended to help pay for the first phase, which would extend the Orange Line from the East Falls Church Metro station through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue in Reston. The second phase would go to the airport and then into Loudoun County.
Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.