Some See Funding Woes as Chance to Fix Flaws

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

For some, the possible denial of federal funding for a proposed Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport is not a setback, but an opportunity.

Most in this group acknowledge that they represent a small but vocal minority in a sea of broad business support for the 23-mile, $5 billion extension, which would bring transit to Tysons Corner and the booming Dulles jobs corridor beyond. But these critics are nonetheless firm in their belief that the project is fatally flawed: too expensive, poorly managed and lacking competitive bidding. If the Federal Transit Administration follows through on its threat to deny $900 million in funding, they say, Virginia and the region would be getting a gift, not a slap in the face: a chance to start over and make the project right.

"I have to tell you, I am pleased for the sake of the taxpayers that it appears that rail to Dulles is on its deathbed," said state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), who held a news conference Monday in Richmond alongside Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) to voice opposition to the project. "This is something we have to put behind us if we are going to move ahead with actual transportation solutions that reduce congestion in Northern Virginia."

The "gift," as Cuccinelli puts it, is the FTA's recent announcement that rail to Dulles is unlikely to qualify for federal funding in its current form. Among other factors, FTA chief James S. Simpson and U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said that the project is too costly; that they are not confident in the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority's ability to oversee the construction when it has little experience doing so; and that they see risk in the fact that the Metro system is expected to operate the new line when it has no dedicated source of revenue to do so.

State leaders, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R), have responded vehemently that Simpson and Peters have raised issues that have long been resolved. They are negotiating with federal regulators in hopes of saving the project. And they have the backing of dozens of business leaders, trade associations, chamber groups and owners of large and small companies.

"The Virginia Chamber of Commerce stands four-square behind rail to Dulles," said Hugh Keogh, president and chief executive of the statewide business group, which represents 1,000 businesses and 90 local chamber organizations. "We will be working toward getting the project reinstated."

Cuccinelli, Marshall and other state leaders, including Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), acknowledge that they are in the minority. But they have long criticized the rail line to Dulles. Its costly, four-station diversion through Tysons Corner, they say, is more about helping developers reap the profits of high-density development than about moving people to the airport. Its dependence on revenue from the Dulles Toll Road to cover a huge chunk of construction costs would put the burden of any future cost escalations on commuters.

And its management by the airports authority, which operates the toll road and is overseeing construction, is bothersome because the authority is not run by an elected body accountable to Virginians, they say.

"If I were the governor, I would stop trying to resuscitate something that's 95 percent dead and look for something that's more attractive," Howell said, "not only from a financial standpoint but also for moving people to Tysons and the airport."

Howell and other critics of the project believe the solution for the Dulles corridor is in a type of service known as bus rapid transit, an express bus service with dedicated lanes and stations, allowing commuters to move as quickly as they would on a rail line without getting stuck in traffic.

This type of bus service was ruled out by local officials and business leaders because of the difficulty of building dedicated lanes through Tysons Corner and because of the increased number of riders that a true rail line would draw. But it is so much cheaper that it should be revisited, boosters say.

"We need to immediately start considering a BRT alternative and what the timetable of that would be," Fairfax County Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) said. "I don't think we should sit around and wait for the FTA to make a decision to develop a Plan B."

Said Howell: "It's an idea that's been around for a long time. For the cost of maybe three miles of rail to Dulles, you could put up two more lanes alongside the Dulles Toll Road. Maybe you could bring the rail to Tysons and then have bus rapid transit the rest of the way."

Critics also believe there is taxpayer money to be saved in selling the Dulles Toll Road to private investors and using that money to finance construction of a transit line to the airport. Rail boosters say the toll road is too valuable an asset to sell to the private sector. They also say that if critics are worried that tolls will rise too steeply under the airports authority's management, they should expect them to go up even more in private hands.

Other concerns raised by critics are what they view as the lack of competitive bidding that led to a contract with Dulles Transit Partners, a consortium led by Bechtel. Under Virginia's Public-Private Transportation Act, the consortium bid several years ago on the design portion of the project and then negotiated with Virginia for the construction contract without competition.

Finally, there are those who oppose the plans for an elevated track through Tysons and view FTA's reluctance to finance the project as a chance to redesign the line with a tunnel through that area.

Staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.

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