By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Federal regulators have approved a long-awaited extension of Metrorail to Tysons Corner and Dulles International Airport, virtually assuring construction of a $5.2 billion project that regional leaders say is crucial to ease congestion and spur economic growth in Northern Virginia.
By signing off on the project, the Federal Transit Administration reversed its position of almost a year ago, when its regulators declared Dulles rail unqualified to receive $900 million in federal funding, citing cost overruns, delays and concerns about management. The project now heads to U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and the Office of Management and Budget for final approval. But the transit agency's action is widely viewed as a critical achievement that essentially guarantees the federal funding. Without it, the project would have died, state and regional officials said.
"We've been pushing this boulder up the hill for years," said U.S. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.). "This is one of the best examples in my 30 years here of bipartisanship achieving an end result that benefits the entire greater Washington metropolitan area."
The reversal caps 11 months of frantic activity by the region's top politicians, who have steadfastly pressured Peters and even the White House to keep alive a project that state, federal and airport officials have planned for more than 40 years. The Silver Line would stretch 23 miles from Falls Church past the airport and into Loudoun County. Its backers say it will be a major commuting route for as many as 60,000 riders a day, providing an alternative for the thousands of drivers who take the jammed Dulles Toll Road each day from their homes in Reston, Herndon and the outer suburbs to jobs in Tysons Corner and the District.
"I'm elated," said U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), whose district includes much of Tysons Corner and most of the rail line's path. "We have had to jump over so many obstacles in our path to this point that it seems almost anticlimactic now that it's finally agreed to."
Sarah Echols, a spokeswoman for Peters, confirmed that the transit agency approved the rail line, but she offered little comment other than to say that the Transportation Department "is continuing to review this complex project." Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) declined to be interviewed, offering a statement instead that the news was a "positive step" forward for a project that must clear a few more hurdles.
James E. Bennett, president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, was similarly circumspect in an interview. The authority, led by a board appointed by federal, District, Maryland and Virginia governments, operates Dulles and Reagan National airports and the toll road and is managing the construction of the rail line for Virginia.
State and airport officials have been careful to temper their enthusiasm about the project's chances for approval because it came so close to extinction early in the year. Their caution also reflects the widely held view that politics and ideology played a role in the project's problems within the Federal Transit Administration and the Department of Transportation. Leaders in Virginia have sought to avoid alienating administration officials who didn't believe in the value of such an enormous public investment in transit.
The rail line will be financed with a combination of the federal grant, the proceeds of two special taxing districts (one in Tysons and one in Reston) and the revenue from future increases in tolls. Peters has spoken publicly several times about the advantages of the privatization of transit; some of her subordinates in the department have worked for private equity companies that have expressed interest in purchasing the toll road.
Moran said the national credit crisis probably helped the project's chances, because it "dried up" interest among private purchasers who had been eyeing the toll road. "But more importantly," he said, "the ideologues in the administration have given up."
The reviews by Peters and the budget office should take about a month, officials said, so they should be completed before the new administration takes over. After that, the proposal goes to Congress for final approval. Federal Transit Administration officials have said they reversed course because of changes the state made, making the project more cost-effective and ensuring that it met the agency's standards.
The first phase of the rail line, for which Virginia is seeking the federal money, would have four stations at Tysons Corner and end at Wiehle Avenue in Reston. It is scheduled for completion in 2013. The second phase, to the airport and into Loudoun, is expected to be done two years after that. Utility and staging work along Route 7 in Tysons have begun, and the Federal Transit Administration has authorized Metro to begin ordering rail cars for the new service.
In addition to easing congestion, the transit line is expected to spur a revival of traffic-choked Tysons, where the planned Metrorail stations have become the focal points of a planned transformation from suburban office park and malls to a series of walkable downtowns with shopping, nightlife, city-style residences and jobs.
With 120,000 jobs and two malls but only 17,000 residents, Tysons is Virginia's leading jobs center and a critical retail hub. But it is an automobile destination dominated by eight-lane highways and acres of parking. Local and state leaders hope to change that to improve its appearance and make it more pedestrian-friendly, while also reducing the run-off pollution and carbon emissions associated with heavy congestion.
Federal approval of rail adds urgency to efforts to give Tysons landowners the latitude to build high-rise condominiums and office space on parcels now dominated by low-slung car dealers and strip malls.
"Time is the enemy here," said William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, which has helped lead the effort to remake Tysons Corner. "We're not going to have time to build the buildings to hook up to the rail stations."
Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.