Stop and go

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by Robert Burke

Not one foot of new track has been laid for the Dulles Metrorail extension, and already it’s been quite a ride. And the thrills aren’t over yet as the bumpy stop-and-go progress on the multibillion dollar construction project so vital to Northern Virginia continues under a new federal administration.

A year ago, the long-planned expansion appeared dead when federal officials balked at the idea of spending $900 million on a Metrorail system that was underfunded and badly in need of repairs. 
In the words of Federal Transit Administration (FTA) director James Simpson, the project faced “an extraordinarily large set of challenges.”

Stunned supporters — including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and members of the state’s congressional delegation — managed to bring the project back to life through political pressure and enough changes in the plans to satisfy critics at the FTA.

Their efforts paid off. The project cleared a key hurdle two months ago when the FTA reversed its earlier rejection and signed off on the first phase of the $5.2 billion project. In early January, Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters gave final approval, noting the significant improvements made by project managers over the past year. 

On the drawing board for more than 40 years, the 23-mile extension would make it easier for people to get around in one of the state’s largest job corridors. According to state transportation planners, it would improve traffic flow to the bustling Tysons Corner area and Washington Dulles International Airport.

William Lecos, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and a big supporter of the rail extension, wonders whether last year’s rejection actually helped. “There is some view that says had that not happened, you never would have rallied the broader support” in business and political circles, he says.

Construction is set to begin in March. The first phase of the extension — dubbed the Silver Line — would be complete in 2013. It adds five new stations — four in Tysons Corner — and an extension from the Metro system in Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Fairfax County. A second phase, scheduled for completion in 2016, extends into Loudoun County and adds six additional stations, including one at Dulles International Airport.

Supporters say the extra rail will provide a commuter route for up to 60,000 people a day in the outer suburbs, relieving the congested Dulles Toll Road. The extension also is driving the makeover of Tysons Corner.  With 120,000 jobs and more than 26 million square feet of office space, Tysons is the nation’s 12th-largest employment center. However, only 17,000 residents live there.

Dominated now by cars and crowded highways, Fairfax County leaders are working on a new land-use plan that would transform Tysons into a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly urban center. The higher densities proposed for Tysons depend on the Metro stations. The beginning of construction on the new Metro line could put more pressure on the county to pass the plan so developers can start building. 

“The worst fear right now is that the Metro goes through and in 2013 the first passenger opens the door on the brand spanking new Metro West station and looks out on a vacant car dealership,” says Lecos.

The speed of the Tysons Corner redevelopment may be affected by other factors. The new Obama administration is pushing a federal stimulus package that would include billions for infrastructure projects such as transit, which could boost the Dulles rail project or other transportation improvements in Northern Virginia.

The pace of commercial development, though, could be slowed by the recession and credit crisis. “I guess the only good news is that we have time to get it right,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

With much of the funding mechanisms in place, changes in Tysons and along the Dulles corridor seem closer than ever. Earlier this year Virginia transferred control of the Dulles Toll Road to the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority, which is managing the Metrorail project. Money from tolls and from special tax districts in Tysons and Reston will help repay about $1 billion in public tax-exempt bonds that will be used to help finance construction.

The crisis in financial markets has affected bond sales as well. A $300 million offering in December by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey attracted no bids. But airports authority spokeswoman Tara Hamilton says the bonds’ tax-exempt status makes the Dulles bonds more attractive to investors.

Some of the biggest supporters of the Dulles Metrorail project would actually like to see its momentum slowed a little to give them time to change its design. TysonsTunnel, a grassroots group that wants the rail line built under Tysons instead of on elevated tracks, still hopes to convince federal and state leaders that a tunnel is a better deal. Kaine dropped plans for a tunnel about two years ago, saying it would make the project more expensive and hurt chances for winning federal funding.

TysonsTunnel leader Scott Monett says tunnels are actually cheaper because they last longer, and that underground stations are better for creating the kind of urban environment that smart growth supporters want. “We have to appeal to the feds” for support, says Monett. His group sent letters in December to Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and to the Obama transition team. Monett says Oberstar backs the tunnel option. “The feds are the ones that under the Bush administration kind of forced this deal, and they are the ones who can fix it.”

There’s already plenty to fix at Tysons and up and down the crowded Dulles corridor. A few years of construction will probably make commuting worse in the short-term but the project’s backers are taking a long view. “A year ago we were very worried that this project wasn’t going to get built,” says Marcia McAllister, communications manager for the project. “And now we’re at the best spot we’ve ever been in.”


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