Dulles rail project moves to final design phase

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The federal government gave the plan to bring commuter rail to Dulles a green light, but the project still faces many bumps in the road, including a lawsuit questioning some of its financing.

In early May, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) gave approval for the project to enter its final design phase and released $158.7 million in federal funds. The project would extend Metrorail 23 miles from East Falls Church to Washington Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County.

The federal go-ahead did not come without conditions. Chief among them is that Virginia must work with Maryland and the District of Columbia to fully fund Metro — no small undertaking. It has identified almost $500 million in unmet capital needs, along with another $200 million for a capital reserve account to ensure sufficient funds would be available to cover the risks of the project.

“Obviously, there’s money that needs to be found, and that’s never an easy process, but this must happen,” says Eileen Curtis, president of the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose members inundated federal and state transportation officials with 1,000 daily e-mails in the months leading up to the FTA decision. “With gridlock plus rising gas prices and environmental concerns weighing in, mass transit has to be a major part of any city’s planning going forward.”

Curtis says traffic congestion in Northern Virginia is making it difficult for employers to recruit and retain qualified employees.

The Dulles Corridor has the second largest concentration of employment in the region, after Washington itself, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The area had 205,000 jobs in 2000, but that is projected to increase to 337,000 jobs in 2025.

The Dulles project, with an estimated price tag of $5 billion, faces major challenges going forward, including receiving full federal funding, totaling $900 million.

In addition, the Virginia Supreme Court in June revived a lawsuit that questions the constitutionality of using Dulles Toll Road receipts for project construction. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine moved the road’s control to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority without approval of the General Assembly. The case, sent back to Circuit Court, could at least delay the project — pushing the project’s price tag even higher.

Curtis, however, thinks the FTA’s go-ahead marks a turning point.

“Never in the history of FTA projects has a project passed through to this new phase and not been awarded the money needed to complete the project,” she said. “It will be challenging, of course, but at the end of the day, I think we’re good to go.”

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