By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters gave the final federal seal of approval to plans to extend Metrorail to Dulles International Airport last night, ensuring that the $5.2 billion project can move forward without restrictions.
After a series of regulatory setbacks in 2008, rail to Dulles was revived last month when the Federal Transit Administration discarded long-standing skepticism about the project's cost and management and sent it on to Peters for final action. Yesterday's news marks what state, local and congressional boosters said is the government's irreversible approval of the project.
"It's an exhilarating feeling," said Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who praised Peters and Northern Virginia's congressional delegation for working together to keep the rail line alive. "It's going to be a wonderful project for the whole region."
Peters's action releases the project to Congress for a 60-day comment period. After that, the project qualifies for a $900 million federal transit grant that state, local and congressional leaders have said is essential to its success.
Once the money has been released, the remaining work can proceed unfettered by federal regulatory limitations. Before last night's action, federal regulators gave project managers incremental permission to order rail cars and begin utility relocation work in Tysons Corner. But the money for that work had to come from nonfederal sources.
The reversal caps a year of frantic activity by the region's top politicians, who have steadfastly pressured Peters and the White House to keep alive a project that state, federal and airport officials have planned for more than 40 years.
The Silver Line will stretch 23 miles from Falls Church to the airport and into Loudoun County. Backers say it will carry as many as 60,000 riders a day, providing a major commuting 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.
"This is an important project and a long-term goal for this region to bring rail along the Dulles corridor," Peters said. "We wanted to find a way to make this a good project. It's a better project than it was a year ago."
Peters said the most significant improvement made by project managers was to strengthen the proposal's finances and contingency budget. The rail line's costs have spiraled in recent years, and the project was at risk of failing federal transit cost-efficiency standards. That risk is now gone, Peters said.
"God bless Mary Peters," said U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who, along with Kaine and recently retired U.S. senator John W. Warner (R), led state efforts to revive Dulles rail. "For our region, this is probably the most significant transportation issue for the next decade or more. Had we lost this thing, it would have had huge, huge impacts. It is really kind of a big deal."
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.
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 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.
In addition to the federal grant, costs will be paid by special real estate tax districts in Tysons Corner and Reston, contributions from Fairfax and Loudoun counties, and revenue from toll increases on the Dulles Toll Road.
The project will be managed for Virginia by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which also operates the Dulles Toll Road and which, over time, will raise tolls to help fund construction.