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Wednesday, April 30 at 12:30 p.m. ET

Federal Approval for Dulles Rail

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Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008; 12:30 PM

Post staff writer Amy Gardner was online April 30 at 12:30 p.m. ET to take your questions about the announcement of federal approval to extend Metrorail to Dulles Airport, if it clears the way for federal funding of the extension, and what's next for the project.

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A transcript follows.


Amy Gardner: Hello everybody, thanks for joining in on what is a pretty important news day for Northern Virginia. As most of you probably know by now, the Federal Transit Administration has approved the final design phase of the long-sought extension of Metro to Dulles International Airport. This does not guarantee that the 23-mile will be built. But it is a major step forward, particularly for project that these same federal officials declared all but dead in January.

So, please, send me your questions or comments, and I'll try to answer them as well as I can!


Herndon, Va.: What has to happen next in order to receive federal funding?

Amy Gardner: This is a good question. Remember, the project is not guaranteed full federal funding. It is now officially in final design, which means it is authorized to spend about $150 million of federal dollars on final engineering.

There are also several conditions attached to the final design approval, as outlined in a letter to Gov. Tim Kaine from U.S. Transpo Secretary Mary Peters. The most significant one, I think, is a demand for a guarantee from Virginia, the Metro system and the local governments that help pay for it to start investing in the system's infrastructure. The system is woefully underfunded in that regard .. .something on the order of $500 million in capital needs have been identified but not funded .... so that demand will place huge pressure on the region to pony up.


Washington, D.C.: I hope people understand that although this is great for commuters who live and work out the Dulles Toll Road, business travelers won't use it. The time it will take to ride the Metro from Dulles to D.C. will be excruciatingly long.

It's too bad our urban planners didn't consider a nonstop rail link to downtown similar to the Heathrow Express in London or some sort of monorail setup linking Dulles, National, and Union Station.

Amy Gardner: There's been a great deal of discussion about why planners didn't pursue a double-track design so that express trains could whiz travelers out to Dulles from downtown. My understanding is that the cost was viewed as prohibitive, and space within the median of the Dulles Toll Road, where most of the 23 new miles of track will lie, is also limited. I think you raise a good point about whether travelers will use the train to reach IAD. I'm inclined to think some will, and some won't. If it takes an hour and a half to get there from Metro Center, that's not much worse than driving at rush hour. It's also going to be a heck of a lot cheaper than parking for a week at Dulles. So it will probably depend on the individual.


McLean, Va.: Do they understand that any option for above-ground rail through Tysons will cause many resident, business as well as pedestrian traffic to leave the area entirely?

If they can only agree to put it underground through Tysons I think we can all get along, if not, they will be losing a lot of revenue from folks like me who have been in the area for 30-plus years.

Amy Gardner: You are certainly not alone in despairing over the aerial alignment of the extension through Tysons Corner. For those of you less familiar with the details, a well-funded and well-organized group of citizens got together to oppose the aerial design and to seek a new design that would include a tunnel through the two-mile, four-stop section of the line that is supposed to run through Tysons. The primary view of this group is that an elevated track is ugly, and ruins the opportunity to remake Tysons into a walkable, urban, pedestrian-friendly downtown.

It's fair to say now, though, that the tunnel is dead. It's also not clear how many people view that as a deal-killer. I know of no one who would rather see the elevated track. But I've also interviewed many, many people who would rather have an elevated track than no extension at all.


McLean, Va.: The Post's story about the USDOT's action on the Metro extension through Tysons Corner is misleading. The FTA has not yet "approved" this project. It has only committed an additional $159 million toward final design of the project. Essentially, the current appointees have kicked the can down the road for the next appointees to make the final decision. Sort of like Iraq!

Amy Gardner: What the story says is that the project has received final design approval, which means that it may now proceed into final design and spend that $159 million in the process. You're right, there is no guarantee that the entire project will still happen. And, as the story points out, today's final design approval comes with serious strings attached (see above posting about Metro's capital needs). But the fact is that final design approval is considered a critical, if not the critical, hurdle in receiving federal transit funding through the New Starts Program.


Washington, D.C.: Any chance they will have an open competition for the construction contract?

Amy Gardner: That's a bit of a loaded question. Some people view the current contract as having been awarded uncompetitively, but state officials, including Gov. Kaine, say that is not true. Bechtel (of Big Dig fame) and several other companies got together to form a consortium (Dulles Transit Partners) and made a competitive bid for this contract. It's called a design-build contract, which means the competition comes in for the design portion of the contract, and then the state can negotiate without competition to award the construction portion of the contract. The state is also free to reject the contractor if the private negotiations are unsatisfactory. It's true that it is not a competitive process in the traditional sense of open bidding. But it is an increasingly common way to bid large infrastructure projects, with an advantage, I'm told, of locking in costs and placing much of the risk on the contractor. I'm by no means an expert on this, and I know there are two sides to this debate.


Silver Spring, Md: How did this project turn Lazarus? Did it just benefit from being out of the public consciousness for a few months?

Amy Gardner: I think it did benefit from going dark for a while. The folks I have relied on to keep me posted on the progress of talks have been woefully silent (for my purposes!) ... and they now say that that really helped talks progress amicably with the feds. I'm also told that Barbara Reese of Gov. Kaine's office was very effective in working directly with U.S. Transpo Secretary Mary Peters to answer questions and respond to her concern. Relationships matter.


Bethesda, Md.: So if I understand the terms correctly, the funds will NOT become available unless Metro can fund the capital improvements it needs, which I am guessing will come out of my pocket, not just Virginians. How likely will Maryland, D.C. and southern Virginia get on Board? I know you'll argue that these capital improvements benefit everyone but I for one don't want to see increased taxes to pay for METRO in order to benefit developers in Tyson and Reston.

Amy Gardner: That's a huge, looming question. Virginia and Metro now have their work cut out, politically speaking, to get the other stakeholders on board if this is going to happen. I also think you'll see some serious effort on the part of Virginia's congressional delegation to find the money at the federal level. We've already seen non-D.C.-region congressional leaders (Oberstar, Blunt) say this project is crucial. Perhaps Sen. Warner and Rep. Wolf will be paying such folks a visit and seeking their support for a federal earmark.


Washington, D.C.: When will the governor, metro or county officials be releasing a statement? Have any of those entities released any information on how they will "pony up" to make the project happen?

Amy Gardner: Gov. Kaine is holding a media briefing by phone at 4 p.m. today. We'll try to post an update to the story thereafter. I'll be sure to ask him that question!


Washington, D.C.: Hello Amy, thank you for taking my question.

So how tight are the strings with this funding? My concern is that the above/below ground infantries will reenlist and before you know it, the funding will lapse.

Amy Gardner: I really think the tunnel debate is dead. I've been badly wrong before, so who knows? But over the last three months, we've seen huge lobbying efforts by both sides on this issue, yet the pro-rail side seems to have been louder and more organized. And it's not just the grassroots tunnel supporters on the anti side. It's also businesses who stood to gain from the tunnel ... the tunnel digging company Dragados, the Tysons development company WestGroup, and more. But on the other side, the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce called 100,000 households to tell them that this thing was near death. That prompted, I'm told, 6,000 phone calls directly to the White House. That tells me that while there are legitimate concerns about the aerial alignment, there is also general, broad support for the overall project.


Vienna, Va.: What will the hours of operation be when the line reaches Dulles. I have wanted to use the bus-to-rail option but twice my flights arrived AFTER the last bus. Will METRO stay open to accommodate late night, early morning travelers?

Amy Gardner: I'm afraid I don't know the answer. I imagine it will depend on ridership, but I doubt they've developed operation hours yet.


Alexandria, Va.: If you were a canny real estate speculator, what property would you snap up?

Amy Gardner: It's too late! It's all gone!


Finally...!!: Hi Amy,

Is there a rough timeline for completion of the different phases of the project that you can share? Also, what are the different phases? (Today's story mentioned phase 1 is Falls Church to Wiehle Ave in Reston).


Amy Gardner: Hi there. The schedule has consistently moved back and back and back, so I wouldn't take this to the bank (and in fact delays and the costs that go along with them were among the FTA's biggest concerns), but the schedule shows a 2012 completion date for phase 1, which would extend the new "Silver Line" from the East Falls Church Metro station on the Orange line in Arlington County to Wiehle Avenue in Reston. The second phase, expected to be done in 2015, would extend beyond the airport into Loudoun County.


Tysons Corner, Va.: Do you have any sense why the FTA staff insisted on opposing this project?

Amy Gardner: There are a lot of theories, and probably a little truth to all of them. One is the face value explanation given by the FTA. This project is genuinely overbudget and late and has been managed poorly (in spurts) by the state of Virginia. Even Gov. Kaine would stipulate that. But there are other reasons that played a role too. Sec. Peters and her staff are huge fans of private investment in public infrastructure. They may have seen an opportunity here to move away from public funding of large public projects and put the burden on Virginia to sell the Dulles Toll Road to pay for the rail line. Virginia adamantly opposed this idea. Another theory is that Virginia is controlled by Democrats; the Dulles rail line serves a Democrat-dominant region; so why would the Bush Administration reward this project with scarce federal transit dollars? That's not my theory, but it's a theory.


Herndon, Va: I think it is also important to mention if there is a way to convince Sen. Coburn from holding on a bill provided to get 1.5 bil in federal funds(to also be matched by Va,Md,DC) it would be a huge advantage for this project.

Amy Gardner: I imagine there will be renewed pressure to bring that bill to the floor.


Vienna, Va.: Any idea how Metro plans to accommodate the increase in Orange Line ridership? We are already straining at the gills. It would be hard to convince me that they have the wherewithal to increase all rush hour trains to eight cars, nor that this would solve the problem.


Amy Gardner: This is a significant unknown. One of the feds' lingering concerns about this project is how Metro will handle the bottleneck at East Falls Church, where Orange and Silver Line trains will converge (eastbound). And Rosslyn, where the Blue Line trains will join in the fun.


Arlington, Va.: You realize most of these questions are from the "well-funded and well-organized group of citizens" you mentioned earlier, right?

Amy Gardner: Well everyone is being very polite, so thank you all very much. On that note, I'm going to sign off and get back to work! Thanks again for your excellent questions.


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