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Riding the Path of Rail to Dulles

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The old adage talk is cheap may not apply to the project of building Metrorail out through the Dulles Corridor.

The longer discussions continue, the higher the cost of the project while the percentage of federal contributions drops. The once 80 percent share to be contributed by the federal government is now down to 60 percent.

Total cost to get rail out to Dulles is estimated at $3.1 billion, according to the Dulles Corridor Rapid Transit Project – Project Status report, June 2002, presented by WMATA [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] Acting Project Director John Dittmeier. Dittmeier spoke before about 50 people at the Herndon Town Council Chambers last Tuesday, June 25.

The $3.1 billion rail project, for a stretch of 24 miles, is a greater cost that the $2.7 billion budget cut made by V-DOT in transportation spending pointed out Thomson “Tom” M. Hirst of Reston. Hirst is one of the heads of the newly formed not-for-profit organization Rapid Transit Action Group.

However, the $3.1 billion is the total cost of the project and not the cost to the Commonwealth of Virginia, nor the cost to Fairfax County, as Fairfax County Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Kate Hanley pointed out during the presentation.

Hanley, vice chairman of the Transportation Planning Board, said repeatedly that the county share would be $350 million, yet Dittmeier’s statistics indicated a county cost of between $500 million and $514 million. Hanley took the opportunity, on several occasions during the evening, to campaign for passage of the transportation referendum that will appear on this November’s ballot to increase the sales tax by a half cent.

“Not passing it, and I hope it does pass, will not kill the project,” said Hanley. Answering a question supposing the referendum fails, how might the county procure its portion for the rail project, Hanley said, “maybe a tax district, money from the Virginia legislature, bonds for metro.”

DITTMEIER'S financial analysis – capital costs chart presented four possible projects to increase public transportation through the Dulles Corridor – Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) from West Falls Church to Loudoun County, rail through Tysons Corner and BRT, rail to Loudoun County and a phased implementation of BRT followed by rail to Loudoun.

The last two options were the ones most focused on during the presentation and by the citizens in the audience. In his objections, Hirst used the phased implementation proposal, at a cost of $3.3 billion, versus the $3.1 billion for the rail to Loudoun plan, to make his point.

“At $3.3 billion, the 24-mile stretch would cost $137.5 million per mile,” said Hirst, a supporter of express bus service. Hirst also expressed concern that the project would cost more than projected and cited the Springfield Mixing Bowl as an example. “The Springfield Mixing Bowl was projected at $200 million, now it’s at $800 million,” he said, wondering what a $3.1 billion projection would turn into.

“I’m not using V-DOT as a model for anything,” said Hanley.

“New York City has a larger project. This is not FTA’s [Federal Transit Administration] largest project. We have the experience to manage a project this size,” said Dittmeier.

As indicated in Dittmeier’s financial analysis, Some of the increased costs are attributed to the fact that the project is not located entirely within the public right of way, differing escalation methods, higher costs of BRT vehicles, the addition of a fourth station in Tysons Corner, a larger yard as well as 160 new rail cars.

Dittmeier also noted the amount of parking spaces that would be provided at the new stations. There would be 2,000 spaces at the Tysons West station, 2,300 at Wiehle Avenue, 3,500 at Herndon-Monroe, 2,000 at Route 28 and 4,000 parking spaces at Route 606. “This presumes continued further western growth,” he said.

STEVE MERKLI of Haymarket, an employee of the City of Manassas and a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee, spoke in opposition to the project.

“This is class transit, not mass transit,” Merkli said, noting the cost far outweighs the benefits as, by percentage, so few people ride metro. His greater concern was the potential loss of federal dollars due to poor air quality control. With more trains and more power electric power being used, more power would have to be generated via coal, further polluting the air, he said.

When Merkli asked Dittmeier about the potential loss of federal funds, all Dittmeier said was “we’re okay,” and repeated that statement several more times when pressed by Merkli.

“Virginia Power has a full-time person dedicated to WMATA,” said Dittmeier.

Dave Edwards of Reston, also a member of Fairfax County Airports Advisory Committee, spoke in support of rail expansion.

“There’s no way to get people out to the future Air and Space Museum,” said Edwards of the entity due to open by the end of 2003. Edwards estimated that about 20,000 people per day would visit the new museum. “The typical person will drive their car. This program won’t solve that, but expansion has to happen. It’s essential for the whole process,” he said.