Federal Qualms Leave Dulles Rail at Risk
Supporters, Taken by Surprise and Seeking Answers, Rush to Save the Project
Thursday, January 17, 2008; Page A01
Federal officials remain skeptical of the plan to extend Metrorail to Dulles International Airport and might reject it, even though their consultants recently found that the proposal meets requirements for full funding, government and project sources said.
Officials with the Federal Transit Administration say they are concerned about the price tag and the specter of another Big Dig, the Boston project built by the same contractor in charge of the Dulles rail line, which took years longer and cost millions more than planned, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations are sensitive. In addition, the agency has been reluctant to promote large-scale transit projects.
State and local officials, as well as project advocates, say they are ready to meet any requests by the federal government. Officials slashed $300 million from the budget in September.
The project is to link the region's major international and transcontinental airport to the rest of the transportation network and help remake Tysons Corner. But without the more than $900 million in federal funding requested by Virginia, the plan would collapse.
The FTA's chief, James S. Simpson, was to meet today with James E. Bennett, president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, to discuss the agency's concerns, but the meeting was canceled late yesterday. In addition, Virginia's senators, James Webb (D) and John W. Warner (R), and Northern Virginia's congressmen, Frank R. Wolf (R), Thomas M. Davis III (R) and James P. Moran Jr. (D), are seeking a meeting with Simpson, the sources said. The airports authority is managing the project for the state.
News that the rail plan is still at risk has surprised its backers, who said they thought the FTA was satisfied that the project's cost, ridership estimates, contract details and management met agency criteria. A consultant for the FTA, Hill International of Philadelphia, recently submitted two draft reports that sign off on a host of technical details, said sources who have spoken with the consultant.
"We can see no reason why the project would be rejected at this point," Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said during a question-and-answer session yesterday on washingtonpost.com. "Under normal conditions, communities often put up 20 to 30 percent of the costs of these transit projects with the federal government picking up the remaining share. In this instance, the local share is more than two-thirds, and Congress has already demonstrated that this is a project of national importance by allocating significant budgetary resources."
As if to underscore his concern, Kaine signed a letter yesterday with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) urging Simpson and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to approve the rail line. Failure to do so would dash plans, in the making for more than 40 years, to connect the nation's capital by rail to the area's largest airport.
The outcome also would scuttle years of effort by local officials and developers to transform Tysons Corner, Virginia's most concentrated jobs center, from a sprawling suburban office park to a Metro-accessible downtown.
Numerous sources close to the project -- in congressional offices, the airports authority and state government -- say their optimism soured in recent days as they began hearing from the FTA and Transportation Department officials.
FTA spokesman Wes Irvin declined to comment on the status of the project yesterday, except to note that a decision, expected at the end of the month, has not been made. Irvin said the technical reports from Hill International represent only some of the factors the FTA will consider. Others include a financial assessment and the merits of the project compared with others around the country competing for a limited pot of federal money, he said.
"We certainly hope the project sponsor appreciates the complexity and seriousness of the contractor recommendations," he said. "Obviously Dulles is a mega transit project. It comes with big risks. It's not as simple as plugging a few numbers into a computer over at the FTA and out of the printer comes a recommendation of whether to move the project forward or not."
The initial phase of the Silver Line first would extend from the East Falls Church Metro station on the Orange Line in Arlington County to Wiehle Avenue in Reston; it is scheduled to be completed in 2012. The second phase, expected to be done in 2015, would extend the line beyond the airport into Loudoun County. The total price tag for both phases exceeds $5 billion.
Project boosters, nearly all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of diminishing the rail line's chances, said they could think of no good reason for the project to be denied federal funding so late in the process.
"There are members of the delegation who have been working on this project for years who are saying, 'Well, if all the boxes are checked, what's the holdup?' " said one congressional source. "This is the critical go time. Is there a holdup? And if so, what is it? How do we, in this window of opportunity, advance the project and make it go?"
Officials on Capitol Hill, in Richmond and at the airports authority's headquarters have speculated in recent days about what the problem might be. Some say the FTA has long been skeptical of expensive rail projects; in recent years, it has more often championed bus rapid transit projects.
Others point to a long-standing desire in the Transportation Department to move away from public investments in infrastructure. Peters, the transportation secretary, for example, refused to endorse a report published Tuesday by a bipartisan national commission on the future of the nation's transportation system. She instead issued a dissent decrying wasteful spending and the federal government's large share of the investment. She said she favored private investment and more tolling to control congestion.
In the end, the FTA has three options: to approve the Dulles project's final design, advancing it and virtually assuring the federal money; denying approval; or placing more demands on the airports authority and Virginia to make changes.