By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008
Federal transportation officials revived a long-sought Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport yesterday, but they attached daunting conditions, including a demand for a major influx of cash into the Metro system.
In a conference call with Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Virginia congressional leaders, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said that the first phase of the rail line planned between Arlington and Loudoun counties had finally met the Federal Transit Administration's standards for cost efficiency, construction and expected ridership. The project will now move into the final design phase, a major step toward receiving $900 million in federal funding.
Peters's announcement represented a reversal from her position in January, when she and FTA chief James S. Simpson declared the project unfit for federal funding. The decision was hailed by a broad group of business and political leaders who credited Peters and Kaine for pushing tirelessly over the past three months for changes to the project that would qualify it for approval.
Virginia has sought a rail line to Dulles for more than 40 years, not only to connect Washington to its major international airport but also to promote development and growth through the state's most concentrated job corridor.
"I feel good," Kaine said in an interview. "This won't be the last hurdle in the project because it's just big and challenging, but this was a high one. I really applaud the work that we have been able to do with Secretary Peters and the administration to answer their questions and assure them that this is a project that should be moving forward."
Peters, Kaine and others cautioned that much work remains. To receive the entire $900 million, project officials must not allow the cost to escalate further, and they must demonstrate that its schedule, including an optimistic Phase I completion date of 2012, can be met. Toughest of all is a demand that the Metro system's $489 million in unfunded capital repairs be addressed before it takes on operation of a new 23-mile line.
Peters was unavailable for interviews yesterday, but a senior official at the Department of Transportation said: "Everyone recognizes that there is not an easy path forward."
"These issues don't just disappear overnight," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment on the record. "They've made progress. They really have. Things seem to be running smoothly. They cut some costs. But there's a lot of uncertainty ahead, and they've got to work hard. They've got to work smart. They've got to really buckle down on this."
The cause of Peters's reversal was the subject of wide speculation, but most officials close to the process cited a combination of factors including her willingness to work with Kaine, as well as the governor's early pledge to fix anything "large or small" to make the project work.
The officials said the urgency of the requests from Kaine and others that the project be saved played a role in the department's willingness to reconsider.
"When the governor of a state and the congressional delegation come to a Cabinet secretary and say, 'This is an important issue; can you give us a chance to make this right?' [then] Secretary Peters is going to be responsive to that," the official said. "We had to address all the issues that were laid out on the table."
Simpson noted that the only reason the FTA was so adamant in declaring the project unfit in January was to meet a deadline request made by Virginia to make a decision by Feb. 1, when the state's contract with the project's builder was scheduled to expire. By extending that contract for several months, the state bought itself and the FTA time to more carefully evaluate the project's flaws, Simpson said.
"We were under extraordinary pressure to give them an answer on where the project stood," he said. "The FTA is the last firewall on projects that cost too much or should not go forward. There is no way that all those issues could have been resolved by the end of January."
Among the issues were cost, the ability of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to manage the construction project, and the Metro system's capacity to operate the additional rail line. Simpson said they resolved those issues in part by agreeing to more than $200 million in cuts identified by state officials. Virginia officials also were persuaded to find $200 million for a contingency fund in case costs rise later.
It will be hard for project managers to avoid that. Because of the delays this year, the contract will have to be renegotiated, probably at a slightly higher cost, several officials said. And the scheduled 2012 completion date for Phase I, which would extend the new Silver Line from the East Falls Church Metro station in Arlington to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, probably would be moved back at least a year. The second phase, expected to be done in 2015, would extend beyond the airport into Loudoun.
One issue that appears to be permanently resolved is the question of whether a tunnel would replace the project's elevated alignment through Tysons Corner. Tunnel backers had hoped that federal rejection of the project would allow state officials to start over and design a rail line with the tunnel, because it would look better and help promote urban redevelopment in Tysons. But with the project officially in final design, those hopes appear to be over.
Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.