Dulles Derailed

Friday, January 25, 2008

THE INTERNATIONAL airports in Chicago, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney are served by passenger rail lines. Those in Kampala, Ulan Bator and Tegucigalpa are not. The Bush administration has now, for all intents and purposes, decided that Washington, D.C., belongs forever in the second category and not in the first.

That's putting it starkly, but with good reason. James S. Simpson, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, told top officials from Virginia yesterday that the decade-long plan to extend Metrorail to Dulles Airport is as good as dead. The project, with an estimated total price tag of around $5 billion, relied on the FTA for nearly a fifth of its funding. Without that federal share, extending Metrorail to Dulles is a non-starter.

To say that the FTA's decision is a bolt from the blue is an understatement. Until a few weeks ago, officials representing the state, Metro and the regional airport authority believed, and say they had been told, that the plan was on track and likely to gain FTA approval by the end of January. Consider:

¿ Some $140 million in federal funds had already been spent on preliminary engineering, environmental studies, consultants' reports and the like, with tens of millions more in the pipeline.

¿ Last summer, in response to the FTA's doubts about price, Virginia officials slashed $250 million in costs from the project's first phase.

¿ The FTA had certified that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority was up to the job of overseeing construction.

¿ Metro, despite its chronic funding problems, said it was prepared to operate and maintain what would amount to a 22 percent increase in its track mileage.

Yet yesterday, the FTA all but officially pulled the plug. Even if the project provided significant transportation benefits for the dollars expended -- which Mr. Simpson said it did not -- the FTA's assessment is that Metrorail to Dulles is fatally flawed in so many other ways that reviving it would take something approaching a miracle. Or, as Mr. Simpson said yesterday: "It's a moving target. Things changed."

Well, so it seems. But wouldn't it have been nice if the feds had tipped their hand a few tens of millions of dollars ago? After all, if the FTA was so concerned about Metro's parlous financial condition, it might have said so years ago. The FTA now says it has serious doubts about the regional airport authority's capacity to manage such a mega-project. But that was not the FTA's conclusion in November 2006 when its regional administrator wrote to the authority, certifying that it "has or will have the legal, financial and technical capacity to carry out the program." And why was it only yesterday that the FTA revealed that its own cost estimate for the project's first phase was nearly $1 billion more than state and airport officials had calculated?

Putting the best face on things, there appears to have been a catastrophic, irresponsible failure of communication here. And some project advocates believe it is something worse -- a case of bait-and-switch by the FTA driven by mysterious factors, possibly political, possibly ideological. As far as we know, there is no evidence so far for that darker assessment. But here is one fair conclusion that we can draw from the FTA's inadequate explanation of its tentative decision: This is no way to run a railroad.

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