Dulles Rail Still Has Miles to Go, Hurdles to Clear

By Amy Gardner and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 2, 2008

As business and political leaders celebrate the revival of the proposal to extend Metrorail to Dulles International Airport, those responsible for building, operating and paying for the new line face a cold reality: The project could still fail.

Several challenges remain, including as many as four lawsuits and a mandate from the Federal Transit Administration that the project stay within budget and on schedule. Most daunting, however, is U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters's demand that Virginia and its neighbors address the Metro system's nearly $500 million in unfunded capital needs.

Metro would not build the Dulles line, but would operate it. In March, Metro officials said they urgently need $489 million to replace worn equipment, improve rail-car safety and fix deteriorating infrastructure, such as crumbling concrete station platforms and corroded track fasteners. Agency managers produced a list of 44 items that they said Metro cannot afford to do -- half of which are needed within two years. That is in addition to $1 billion of repairs and infrastructure needs already identified and slated for completion by 2010.

At the moment, Metro doesn't have the money or a mechanism to get the $489 million.

"I can't tell you how important this is," FTA chief James S. Simpson said as he announced this week that the agency would advance the first phase of the 23-mile, $5 billion project -- a critical step toward receiving $900 million in federal funding. Very few transit projects are denied funding after moving to this stage. But without the Metro money, that could easily happen, Simpson said.

"We've got a system that's operating almost at capacity," he said. "We need new rail cars, new tracks, new escalators. What good is adding 22 percent to the system if the system isn't working?"

Project boosters said they will do whatever it takes to save rail to Dulles, long touted as an essential new commuting choice to take cars off congested highways and spur economic development along Virginia's most concentrated jobs corridor. In particular, state and local leaders hope the rail line will promote a transformation of suburban Tysons Corner into a thriving, pedestrian-friendly urban place.

Many of Metro's needs would be taken care of with legislation that has been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to provide the agency with $1.5 billion in dedicated federal funding over 10 years, on the condition that the District, Maryland and Virginia match that amount. All three jurisdictions have pledged to match the federal dollars. The federal bill, though, is being blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who objects because he considers the funding to be an earmark.

"It's not completely in Virginia's control," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said in an interview this week. "There are a lot of other parties that have to be at the table to solve that. But all the parties have a very high stake in resolving it. The D.C. area, which is the center of federal government, is just not going to work well without a functioning Metro system."

Federal officials are not demanding the entire $489 million in hand before they award the full $900 million grant for Dulles rail. They want to see a commitment from Metro's partners to help pay for those unfunded needs through Metro's long-term capital improvement plan, and they want a specific funding pledge for the first year, which begins in July.

The burden is squarely on Virginia, which has sought rail to Dulles for more than 40 years and initiated the application for federal funding to help pay for it. Few are optimistic that Congress will come through with Metro funding, which means Virginia, Maryland and the District must pledge the money on their own.

Metro officials are finalizing the first-year needs and will present them to the board next week. In July, Metro's general manager, John B. Catoe Jr., will present Metro's governing board with a comprehensive 10-year capital plan and his strategy for funding it.

Metro is the nation's only major transit system that does not have a significant source of dedicated funding, such as a portion of a sales tax. The agency's operating costs are paid by farebox receipts, advertising and parking revenue, and subsidies from the jurisdictions that Metro serves.

As Metro searches for funding, Virginia and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority must work to keep the project on budget and on time. The authority operates the region's two airports and the Dulles Toll Road and also will manage the rail line's construction. Already, the agency faces a three-month delay that saw the extension of contract deadlines to accommodate deliberations with the FTA. Those extensions have increased the project's cost and will probably push back completion of Phase I from 2012 to at least 2013.

Phase I calls for the construction of a "Silver Line" from the East Falls Church station in Arlington County to Wiehle Avenue in Reston. Phase II, with a scheduled completion date of 2015 -- that is also likely to be delayed -- will extend from Reston to the airport and into Loudoun County.

The total project cost is about $5 billion, with the money coming from the expected federal share, two special taxing districts along the proposed rail line and revenue from the Dulles Toll Road.

One additional hurdle facing the rail project is a lawsuit pending before the state Supreme Court that challenges Virginia's transfer of the Dulles Toll Road to the airports authority. Opponents have other lawsuits planned as well, including one challenging the taxing district established in Tysons Corner and another challenging the airports authority's right to build the rail line. A possible fourth lawsuit would challenge the findings of the project's environmental impact statement, opponents said.

"This is $900 million of federal money that will provide essentially no congestion relief by their own admission," said Patrick McSweeney, a lawyer and former chairman of the state Republican Party who argued the toll road suit before the state Supreme Court last month.

"It's a development road," McSweeney said, "and its purpose is to encourage development and nothing else."

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