Is Rail on Track?
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Is Rail on Track?

The message was clear: Rail has many supporters in Fairfax County.

At a series of three public hearings last month to discuss the different options for bringing mass transit along the Dulles corridor, most people who rose to speak were in support of building a rail line connecting the West Falls Church Metro station to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County.

About 60 percent of speakers at the hearing were in favor of going straight to rail, said Kate Hanley, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

"The preponderance of those testifying on the first three nights wanted to go directly to rail," said Hanley.

<b>RAIL IS ON</b>E of several options laid out in a June report — called a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) — which outlines the costs and impacts of bringing mass transit out the Dulles corridor. The other options include a high-speed bus system — bus rapid transit (BRT) — or some combination of the two. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and the Virginia DRPT will pick the preferred option late in the fall.

If they pick the rail option, the actual design and construction of the project would be carried out by three firms, the Washington Group, Bechtel Infrastructure and WestGroup. These three contractors, who have come together under the name Dulles Transit Partners, would be hired by the state of Virginia and would work under the direction of WMATA. The Dulles Transit Partners were originally composed of Bechtel, WestGroup and Raytheon Engineers and Consultants, until Washington Group purchased the Raytheon branch in 1999.

"The commonwealth would engage WMATA to be its inspector," said John Dittmeier, the acting project manager with WMATA.

While Washington Group and Bechtel are construction companies, WestGroup specializes in commercial real-estate development along the corridor.

According to Corey Hill, DRPT Northern Virginia regional manager, WestGroup would be responsible for shepherding the passage of a special tax district through the Board of Supervisors to finance Fairfax County's share of the project. A group of landowners along the corridor, including WestGroup, has already come together under the name LEADER to support raising their real estate taxes to help finance the project.

"[WestGroup] would lend support to that group and get the petition to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors for them to approve," said Hill.

<b>ACCORDING TO HILL,</b> Washington Group, Bechtel and WestGroup would split between $2.9 billion and $3.1 billion to build a rail line, if the rail option is approved.

If the BRT option is approved, Washington Group and Bechtel would split between $342 million and $481 million. WestGroup would not be part of the contract if the BRT system is chosen.

Landowners in the corridor would not raise their taxes to help finance a rapid bus system.

"Without a tax district there will be no rail, and without rail, there will be no tax district," said Eric Peterson, the executive director of LEADER.

While both the rail and the bus option allow developers such as WestGroup to apply to the county for higher density developments, the density allowed in the county's Comprehensive Plan would be higher with a rail extension than with a bus system.

WestGroup executive Gerald Halpin has said his company supports the rail option. An executive from the company would not comment on the record for this story.

<b>SINCE THE RELEASE</b> of the DEIS, the rail option has attracted a number of high-profile advocates, from Fairfax County supervisors to members of the General Assembly to real-estate developers and environmentalists.

While the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will not take a position on its preferred option until it reconvenes in September, Hanley said she had doubts about the feasibility of BRT.

"If you're going to go to rail ultimately, just go," she said.

Supervisor Gerald Connolly (D-Providence) also expressed his support for rail. "I'm a strong, strong advocate for getting rail to and through Tysons and then the Dulles corridor," he said.

Rail advocates have formed a coalition called Dulles Rail Now to lobby for the adoption of the rail option as the preferred alternative. Dels. Kenneth Plum (D-36th) and Vincent Callahan (R-34th) have joined the coalition along with LEADER and the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Campaign contribution records from the county's Electoral Board indicate that the three companies in the Dulles Transit Partners have made repeated contributions to members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and to members of the General Assembly.

Since 1998, Hanley has received almost $5,000 from WestGroup, D.C.-based Raytheon, and Tennessee-based Bechtel. Connolly has received about $6,300 from the companies. Connolly has also received about $1,200 from Georgelas Management and almost $2,500 from Lerner Enterprises, two companies that are part of LEADER.

Callahan has received $9,850 from Raytheon, Bechtel and WestGroup. WestGroup has also contributed $2,240 to Plum.

Connolly said he did not think the fact that private landowners would provide funding for rail construction through the tax district would give them undue influence.

"They become a key player at the table, but not the only player at the table," he said.

<b>SEVERAL TRANSPORTATION</b> groups have expressed concern that choosing the rail option might be a foregone conclusion.

"This thing is being railroaded, no pun intended," said Ken Reid, a member of the Rapid Transit Action Committee, a group that supports the BRT option. "Some of the developers out there, they just want the bonus densities."

"This [DEIS] is not very well thought through," he added. "I would hope that they would slow this thing down and look at light rail, monorail, car and vanpool or some kind of phased implementation."

Robert Chase, who heads the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, agreed, noting that the "big push" is toward rail.

"Have we fully examined all the alternatives?" he asked.