Dulles Rail's Revival

Thursday, May 1, 2008

NOT NOW. Not soon. Not ever. That, in a nutshell, was the verdict rendered in January by Federal Transit Administration chief James S. Simpson on the decades-old plan to extend Metrorail through Tysons Corner to Dulles International Airport and beyond.

But yesterday, the rail project -- by far the biggest transit infrastructure plan in this region and one of the largest in the nation -- got a green light from Mr. Simpson's agency. The FTA cleared it for the final design stage of the approval process required of new transit ventures, and it dispensed another $158.7 million in federal funding, doubling the total in grants that had been made to date. "It is our hope that the project will continue down this path toward success and deliver a vital and new rail capacity for the region," said Mr. Simpson, whose about-face in the course of three months has been dizzying. Dulles rail has returned from the dead.

Its resurrection is a triumph of common sense over dogma and suggests that, contrary to the general impression of the state of governance in Washington, rational outcomes remain possible when grown-ups put their heads together. More specifically, it is a testament to the wisdom and perseverance of officials at Metro, which would operate the 23-mile extension; the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which would manage its construction; Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who spearheaded the lobbying with Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to reverse what had seemed like the feds' unequivocal rejection; and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).

Mr. Kaine, along with state transportation officials in his administration (especially Barbara Reese, deputy secretary of transportation), played what may have been the key role in reviving a project that is critical for this region. It is sometimes said (by his Republican opponents in Richmond) that for all the governor's smarts, savvy, good humor and energy, the reality is that he has achieved very little since taking office in 2006. As of yesterday, that criticism is null and void. According to a variety of sources close to the negotiations on Dulles rail, including Republican ones, Mr. Kaine's cool-headed pragmatism was central to rescuing the project from oblivion.

The federal U-turn has been an unfortunate distraction for a project that would vastly enhance the region's transit infrastructure and holds the promise of knitting together Tysons Corner, one of the greatest agglomerations of office space on the East Coast and also an unwalkable wasteland of misdirected urban planning. But it's not out of the woods yet. Final approval and future federal funding of $900 million, without which the extension cannot be built, remain contingent on further progress in demonstrating the project's economic strength and, in particular, ensuring Metro's own financial future. Having salvaged the plan, Mr. Kaine and his allies must now see it through to construction.

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