By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008 11:00 AM
Federal officials have offered another signal that a $5.2 billion Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport is on track to receive federal funding by the end of the year, giving project officials the green light to begin construction in the heart of Tysons Corner.
In a letter issued late Thursday, the Federal Transit Administration authorized construction to begin on the extension, which will stretch 23 miles from the East Falls Church Station in Arlington County, through Tysons Corner and past the airport in Loudoun County. In addition to reducing congestion along Northern Virginia's busiest highways, the rail line is expected to spur an urban renewal in Tysons, a vast suburban office park and the state's largest jobs center.
The news from the FTA does not guarantee full funding of the project, which is counting on $900 million from Washington and has endured years of uncertainty as federal transit officials have questioned its rising costs. But state and project officials welcomed the letter and said they think the project's near-demise earlier this year is behind them.
"This is a confirmation that the project's partners, including the FTA, believe that this project can be successfully delivered," said Mark Treadaway, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is overseeing construction. "It allows us to work on some activities in advance of the full funding agreement."
The FTA's letter further dims hope for those still pushing for a tunnel through the Tysons Corner portion of the rail line. The project was delayed more than a year by a grass-roots effort to force the line underground to maximize redevelopment potential in Tysons and avoid the unsightliness of an elevated track. The effort has waned as a number of political leaders, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), determined that a tunnel would be too expensive and that pursuing it could jeopardize federal funding. At Kaine's insistence, the FTA is reviewing the aerial alignment only.
That larger tunnel is not to be confused with a smaller tunnel that project officials are preparing to dig through Tysons. Plans call for an aboveground alignment through most of Tysons, including four stations -- two on Route 123 and two in the median of Route 7. But the tracks must dip underground briefly through an elevation rise where routes 123 and 7 meet.
The excavation will require a staging area and traffic disruptions along Route 123. Such disruptions are likely to intensify through the fall.
Some preliminary work, including relocation of utility lines, has been underway since January. The pace of the work will pick up considerably after Labor Day, officials said, with more than eight construction sites likely to be in progress along Route 7 between the Dulles Toll Road and International Drive.
As a result, spot closures of the Route 7 service road will continue. And single-lane closures will begin next week along Route 7 and Gosnell Road, project spokeswoman Marcia McAllister said. Motorists have encountered lane closures on the ramps from the toll road to Route 7. That and other nighttime detours in the area will continue, she said.
In addition, the project office has instructed Metro, which will operate the new Silver Line, to begin the process of procuring rail cars.
The most disruptive work has been utility line relocation, which is a scattered effort in part because so many lines must be moved and in part because the process of buying the right of way from private businesses is slow and piecemeal.
"The utility relocation effort has turned out to be a monumental task," McAllister said. "There are more than 21 utilities down there that we have to move . . . fiber [optic cable], Fairfax Water, Verizon, Cox, Qwest, Qwest Government [Services]."
McAllister said project officials are committed to maintaining public access to businesses during operating hours. And businesses along Route 7, particularly gas stations and car dealers, have hung signs reminding passing motorists that they are still open.
"They've been really good sports about it," McAllister said. "The biggest problem we've had is we cut the lights to a portion of a gas station the other night."