Dulles Rail Set to Get Federal Approval

Officials said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters was behind the reversal on the Dulles project.
Officials said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters was behind the reversal on the Dulles project. (Lawrence Jackson - AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Amy Gardner and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Federal transportation officials are planning to approve the proposed 23-mile extension of Metrorail to Dulles International Airport in a letter to Congress today, the officials told local and state authorities yesterday.

Several officials with knowledge of the decision said the $5 billion project had finally met the Federal Transit Administration's standards for cost efficiency, construction and expected ridership. The approval would reverse an opinion from the FTA issued in January that said rail to Dulles did not meet the criteria.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) are to inform Northern Virginia's congressional leaders about the decision in a private conference call at 10 a.m. today, according to an e-mail from the governor's office obtained by The Washington Post.

U.S. Transportation Department spokesman Brian G. Turmail declined to comment. Other officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the deliberations, said that the project would move into the final design stage and that the decision is a major step toward receiving $900 million in federal funding.

Officials said there probably will be certain conditions in the approval letter regarding cost, construction and contract management.

Without the federal money, state and local officials have said, the project would die, ending the possibility of a long-sought rail connection between the nation's capital and its major international airport. Supporters say the line would ease congestion through Virginia's biggest jobs corridor and keep the economy humming with the transformation of suburban Tysons Corner into a thriving downtown.

"This is a critical step," one of the officials said. "Two months ago, everybody was writing the project's obituary. Now, thanks to everybody putting their swords away and making this thing work, the project is moving forward again."

Such a decision would represent a sharp reversal by Peters and FTA chief James S. Simpson, who said in January that the project was unfit for federal funding. Their objections included the project's escalating cost, concerns about its management by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and reservations about the ability of the under-funded Metro system to operate the line.

The announcement stunned state and local officials, who had thought that the project, which had been in the planning stages for years, was on track for federal approval.

Angry exchanges among local and federal officials included an accusation from the FTA that Virginia and the airports authority had ignored signs that the project had been in trouble for months. Project boosters accused the FTA of seeking to kill the Dulles rail project because of the Bush administration's preference for private investment in public infrastructure. Rumors circulated that the FTA sought to force Virginia to sell the Dulles Toll Road to private entities to finance the rail line, and the FTA continued to say that the project's cost was unacceptably high and expected ridership too low.

Before the announcement, "all indications were pointing to a thumbs-up," Kaine said in January.

Simpson said at the time: "No one associated with the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project should be surprised."

Kaine, Peters, Simpson, U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who have been negotiating behind the scenes since January, declined to comment.

In March, Kaine and Peters issued a joint statement praising each other's efforts to reach an agreement. And congressional leaders, including Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and House Transportation Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), have offered support.

Officials with knowledge of the federal decision said Peters was behind the reversal despite objections from the FTA staff, which she oversees. Several sources said they might never know what caused federal regulators to ease up after coming down so hard on the project.

The rail line would go from Falls Church to the airport and into Loudoun County. The first phase, for which Virginia is seeking the federal money, would have four stations at Tysons Corner and end at Wiehle Avenue in Reston.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company