It's Too Early to Celebrate Extension, Some Caution

Initial Federal Approval Came After Many Setbacks

Although final approval of the proposed Silver Line is expected, a few hoops remain.
Although final approval of the proposed Silver Line is expected, a few hoops remain. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008; Page B03

In eight years, the Bush administration has not rejected a single transit project once federal regulators have granted initial approval, as they did this week to the long-awaited Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport.

But not all political leaders who have pushed for the 23-mile rail line are ready to celebrate. The project has suffered so many setbacks and become mired in so many layers of political, economic and ideological controversy over the decades that some of them won't declare victory until the final documents are signed.

The Silver Line will extend from the Metro system in Falls Church to the airport and Loudoun County. It is expected to ease congestion along Dulles Toll Road and spur an urban revival in Tysons Corner, where four new stations will anchor a transformation from car-dominated office park to walker-friendly downtown.

By most accounts, the Federal Transit Administration's sign-off late Tuesday on the first leg of the $5.2 billion rail line virtually guarantees $900 million in crucial funding. But several hoops remain. The project needs approval from U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and the Office of Management and Budget. After that, it goes to Congress for a 60-day review.

Federal transportation officials said their review should be done within 30 days. They said scrutiny will center on the security of the project's financing, which might be less certain because of the international credit crisis. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Dulles International and Reagan National airports and the Dulles Toll Road and is overseeing the rail project for Virginia, has scaled back construction plans at Dulles because of difficulty in issuing private airport bonds.

In addition to the federal grant, the proceeds of special taxing districts in Tysons and Reston and revenue from higher tolls will fund the project. More than $1 billion is expected to be financed with bonds that will be repaid with the taxes and tolls. Project officials have said that these plans are a plus because the revenue sources are so secure. Bonds issued for the rail project are public and tax-exempt and therefore more attractive to investors than the taxable bonds that airports across the country are having trouble selling, airport officials have said.

"We have worked very cooperatively with the FTA on this project and believe that we have provided all the information required for the funding request to continue through the review process," said airports spokeswoman Tara Hamilton.

Dulles rail nearly perished in January, when federal regulators said it was unfit for funding because of cost escalations, delays and concerns about management. It was also no secret that some of the top leadership of the Transportation Department didn't like Dulles rail because of its cost and scope. They wanted Virginia to consider selling the rail corridor, which contains the lucrative Dulles Toll Road, and have a private entity build the line.

Many leaders say it is nearly inconceivable that the project would not proceed now. But they remain nervous.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), for example, has not talked about the project this week. His spokesman, Gordon Hickey, played down the FTA's approval: "It's a step in the process. It's progress, but there's still work to be done."

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