With the Dulles Rail Deal All but Dead, What's a Gridlocked State to Do?

By Raw Fisherfrom Marc Fisher's Blog
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The warning signs had been there for months, yet few could bring themselves to believe that the feds would drop the big one on the most expensive public works project in the history of the Washington area, the extension of Metro to Dulles International Airport.

But that's what the Federal Transit Administration has done, all but extinguishing hopes that the multibillion-dollar transit line, into which the U.S. government has pumped tens of millions of dollars, will be built.

Was this political payback, a poke in the eye from a Republican administration that's no fan of mass transit to an increasingly Democratic state? Or was this a reflection of the bloat of the Metro planning process, which has struggled for years to reach consensus on crucial questions such as whether to tunnel through Tysons Corner? Did the feds simply fear that Metro to Dulles would become our version of Boston's Big Dig -- a preposterously expensive undertaking that's more trouble than it's worth?

Local players in the project say they were misled, egged on by the same federal overseers who now deem the project to be too great a risk. Even now, the federal agency says the Dulles corridor indeed is in desperate need of relief from road congestion.

If Northern Virginia's tech corridor is key to the state's economy, which it is, and Dulles Airport is essential to those businesses, then getting transportation right should be a top priority. But rail advocates never won over those pushing for bus rapid transit, wider highways or some magical solution based on not raising taxes. Add persistent antipathy between Northern Virginia politicians and their downstate colleagues and you have a perfect foundation for the feds to conclude that this project was heading for trouble.

"The Dulles Project," writes FTA chief James Simpson, "has encountered an extraordinarily large set of challenges including changes in mode and sponsorship, a revised termination point, a dramatically escalating budget, delays in the development of the public-private contract, local [dissension] about the design of the project, and lawsuits."

Simpson's statements made it sound as if Dulles rail is all but dead. Gov. Tim Kaine gets to write a pretty-please letter, but Simpson seems about as open to changing his mind as the Bush administration is to socialized health care.

So, if the feds really do stop the flow of dollars to the Dig to Dulles, what next? What can the state do?

¿ A pause of a year or two might be good for the project's future -- if the Democrats regain the presidency. Simpson is no enemy of mass transit: He just approved more than a billion bucks for New York City's Second Avenue subway project, an undertaking every bit as massive as Metro's Dulles extension. But a transit-friendly Democrat in the White House probably would be more aggressive about making sure Metro finds a path to a new rail line.

¿ Advocates for bus rapid transit will jump to the fore, and there might even be a resurgence of interest in light rail. Both modes are vastly cheaper than heavy rail, and both have avid fans in the transportation biz.

¿ Ditch Bechtel. The company that last week agreed to shell out $352 million to settle claims against its botched work on Boston's Big Dig tunnel project is also one of the two big companies that make up Dulles Transit Partners, which got the contract to design and build the rail line. The feds don't mention Bechtel in their letter, but they express deep concern about likely cost overruns and delays, an echo of the horrific experience in Massachusetts.

¿ Bag the airports authority. The feds did get specific about their doubts that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which the state chose to run the Dulles rail construction process, has the experience needed to control the costs and schedule of such a complex project.

¿ Give Metro the dedicated funding stream it desperately needs. Metro has no steady source of money for capital projects and operational costs. "Metro -- unlike all other major systems -- remains uniquely dependent on annual operating subsidies from its member jurisdictions as well as revenue it generates internally from passenger fares, advertising and parking," the Brookings Institution's Robert Puentes writes.

Extending Metro won't make anyone's commute a breeze, but it is an important step toward easing the rate of growth of congestion, and it's a necessity if the airport is to support the state's main engine of economic expansion.

The feds' move guarantees a few more years of worsening pain for Virginia commuters. Beyond that, it's an opportunity for political and business leaders to go back to the drawing board and produce a streamlined plan for another administration to consider.

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