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.
"Every time we dig a hole, we run into issues that we didn't expect," he said.
Such issues are likely to resurface this summer, when construction on a short tunnel between routes 123 and 7 is scheduled to begin. Above the tunnel's path, just outside Clyde's Restaurant, is a giant microwave communications tower operated by the U.S. Army. And if you want to know what the 280-foot tower is for, too bad. "The specific uses of the system to which this particular antenna is attached" are classified, Army spokesman Dave Foster said.
Other government agencies located near Tysons also had little to say. A CIA spokeswoman would not comment when asked about the agency's use of communications lines through Tysons. And Mike Birmingham, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (located at the intersection of the Dulles Toll Road and Route 123), would say only that if a communications line used by the agency was cut, the nation's intelligence-gathering would carry on uninterrupted.
"No particular project puts us at risk -- highway construction, building construction," Birmingham said. "We don't have a single point of failure. Our systems are redundant."
Georgelas, the developer whose company was overseeing the work in 2000 when the Chevrolet Suburbans drove up to the Greensboro Corporate Center, said he figured that the government was involved when an AT&T crew arrived the same day to fix the line, rather than waiting days. His opinion didn't change when AT&T tried to bill his company for the work but immediately backed down when his company balked.
"These lines are not cheap to move," Georgelas said. "They said, 'You owe us $300,000.' We said, 'Are you nuts?' "
The charges just disappeared.
Goguen, the engineer with the Dulles rail project, laughs at the stories of past encounters but has no desire to meet up with the men in the black SUVs.
"We've been here a year," he said, "and it hasn't happened to us yet."