Va. Gains Time to Save U.S. Funding for Dulles Rail

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Sen. John W. Warner are among the Virginia political leaders working to save the project.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Sen. John W. Warner are among the Virginia political leaders working to save the project. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has agreed to a brief "cooling-off" period before making a final decision on whether to fund a rail line to Dulles International Airport, prompting a renewed effort by Virginia political leaders to keep the troubled project alive.

At the request of U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), Peters agreed over the weekend to delay a decision. She also said she would work with Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to try to resolve differences over the cost and management of the proposed 23-mile Metrorail extension, Warner said.

The extra time has given state officials some hope that the rail line might receive federal funding and move ahead. But the list of issues to resolve remains formidable, and the Federal Transit Administration has shown no signs of giving in.

Peters and FTA chief James S. Simpson told Warner and Kaine last week that the $5 billion project was unlikely to receive $900 million in federal funding, money that is deemed crucial. The news shocked Northern Virginia's business and political leaders, who have argued the need for a rail connection between the nation's capital and its international airport since the 1960s. Supporters say the line would ease congestion through Virginia's biggest jobs corridor and keep the economy humming with a transformation of suburban Tysons Corner into a thriving downtown.

Kaine was planning to respond in writing to the FTA yesterday, but he issued a statement late in the day saying he would hold off. Kaine did not say whether he has become more optimistic since Thursday, when he and other rail boosters viewed the project as all but dead.

But a source close to the project, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the governor, said: "There is a glimmer here. It may be a temporary cessation of hostilities. It may be a pathway to getting this thing approved."

The contract to build the rail line has an escalation clause that was set to kick in Friday. The clause would drive up the price, and keep the project from meeting federal standards for cost-effectiveness. But the contractor has agreed to push back that deadline for 30 days.

Last week, Simpson said the project's eligibility for federal funding is threatened by "an extraordinarily large set of challenges," including its cost, which has ballooned over years of planning; the ability of the Metropolitan Washington 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 a system that is underfunded and in need of repairs.

Warner and U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) continued to scrutinize what they view as contradictions between Simpson's assessment of the project and a recent FTA report to Congress. The report's findings suggest that the project meets the criteria for federal money.

A senior FTA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, said the report to Congress has not been updated since 2006 and does not reflect the project's deteriorated status. But Warner said yesterday that he was not satisfied with that answer. He said the report has the project's current price tag and is marked at the top of the spreadsheet, "Last updated: 1/24/08."

"If he wants to say that stuff he's sending to the Hill is not accurate, that's an interesting case in itself," Warner said.

Dan Scandling, Wolf's chief of staff, said Wolf, a member of the House Appropriations Committee's transportation subcommittee, has learned that in recent phone calls between the U.S. Department of Transportation and committee staff, FTA officials gave no indication that the project was about to be rated unsatisfactory.

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