The One Fiber Optic Cable No One on the Dig for Tysons Rail Wants to Hit

More than 75 miles of conduit in the Tysons Corner area must be moved.
More than 75 miles of conduit in the Tysons Corner area must be moved. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009

This part happens all the time: A construction crew putting up an office building in the heart of Tysons Corner a few years ago hit a fiber optic cable no one knew was there.

This part doesn't: Within moments, three black sport-utility vehicles drove up, a half-dozen men in suits jumped out and one said, "You just hit our line."

Whose line, you may ask? The guys in suits didn't say, recalled Aaron Georgelas, whose company, the Georgelas Group, was developing the Greensboro Corporate Center on Spring Hill Road. But Georgelas assumed that he was dealing with the federal government and that the cable in question was "black" wire -- a secure communications line used for some of the nation's most secretive intelligence-gathering operations.

"The construction manager was shocked," Georgelas recalled. "He had never seen a line get cut and people show up within seconds. Usually you've got to figure out whose line it is. To garner that kind of response that quickly was amazing."

Black wire is one of the looming perils of the massive construction that has come to Tysons, where miles and miles of secure lines are thought to serve such nearby agencies as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center and, a few miles away in McLean, the Central Intelligence Agency. After decades spent cutting through red tape to begin work on a Metrorail extension and the widening of the Capital Beltway, crews are now stirring up tons of dirt where the black lines are located.

"Yeah, we heard about the black SUVs," said Paul Goguen, the engineer in charge of relocating electric, gas, water, sewer, cable, telephone and other communications lines to make way for Metro through Tysons. "We were warned that if they were hit, the company responsible would show up before you even had a chance to make a phone call."

So far, so good, Goguen added. But the peril remains for a project that will spend $150 million moving more than 75 miles of conduit along the three-mile stretch of routes 123 and 7 that run through Tysons.

In the Washington area, it's a scenario that has traveled the cocktail party circuit for years. Shiva Pant, an administrator with the Metro system and a former transportation director in Fairfax County, recalled that an expansion of the Dulles Toll Road years ago was delayed when utilities that did not appear on any maps were discovered. The incident fueled all manner of speculation about the purpose and owner of the lines, he said.

Even without the presence of sensitive government operations, moving utilities to make way for Metrorail is a tricky and enormous enterprise. The Tysons-Reston corridor is home to part of MAE-East, one of the nation's primary Internet pipelines installed years ago by the government and private companies. Most major telecommunications carriers link to the pipeline, meaning there's a jumble of fiber optic wire under the Dulles rail route.

Moving utilities quickly and cheaply is a big part of any construction work. But the $5.2 billion rail project, which will extend service from Arlington County to Dulles International Airport, is particularly complex: It includes four stations in Tysons and a three-mile stretch of elevated track along the two main Tysons thoroughfares, which are used by more than 100,000 vehicles each day.

Construction crews have been digging for more than a year to shift the utility wires out of the path of the rail line, stations and support piers -- and they have another year to go. They have dug 30-foot-deep trenches and augured 250-foot conduit sleeves beneath roads. In the end, they will have installed more than 140 new manholes and rerouted the lines of more than 21 private utilities, including Dominion Virginia Power, Cox Cable, Verizon, AT&T and many more.

And they have snapped, accidentally, dozens of those carriers' lines, because even not-so-secret commercial lines sometimes don't show up on utility maps. Goguen, the utility manager, estimates that the rail project has already hit three dozen lines, sometimes doing no damage and other times grinding work to a halt or cutting power to retailers along Route 7. Even after extensively researching land records and maps and digging more than 600 test holes to determine utility locations, it's hard to avoid accidents on a project of such complexity and in such a busy place, he said.

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