The Dulles corridor moved one step closer to mass transit last week as a task force studying ways of bringing transit out to Dulles Airport recommended that rail be extended along the corridor. According to the task force’s recommendation, trains operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) would stop at 11 stations in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, four of which would be in Tysons Corner.
“Travel demand is the driver,” said John Dittmeier, the acting project manager for WMATA and a member of the task force along with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT) and several consultants. Only rail could satisfy the projected demand in the next couple of decades, he said.
THE RECOMMENDATION follows a public hearings process which generated more than 2,500 comments. Speakers at the public hearings disagreed over the mode transit should take. While most of the speakers favored rail, several were more inclined to go with a cheaper bus rapid transit system (BRT) while others thought some combination of the two or a phased implementation would work best.
“We reviewed the public hearing record,” said Dittmeier. “We were in contact with our counterparts with Fairfax County, Loudoun County and the Airports Authority.”
“And the public hearing record shows 78 percent in favor of metrorail without any BRT phase and that was influential.”
Nevertheless, the task force recommended that several features of BRT be integrated into the existing bus network along the corridor until the new rail line is completed. The report contemplates improving bus facilities at the West Falls Church Metro station, giving passengers more accurate information and using the airport access road. The target completion date for the project is 2010 but it is unclear whether that deadline can be met.
Citizens who provided comments during the public hearings process now have a two-week period to comment on the task force’s report, after which it will prepare its final recommendation to be presented to WMATA and VDRPT. In November and December, those agencies will select one of the transit options, prepare a final environmental study and present the project to the federal government.
SUPPORTERS OF the rail option hailed the task force’s report as a major step forward.
“It’s very significant,” said Supervisor Gerald Connolly (D-Providence), whose district includes Tysons Corner and who has been a longtime advocate of rail.
“It makes eminent sense just to go to rail,” he added. “Rail to and through Tysons has to be our top priority. It’s the only way to move large numbers of people.”
Connolly also said that passage of the sales tax referendum was critical to funding the project. If passed, the sales tax increase would provide $350 million for the project, which is estimated to cost more than $3 billion.
“Passing the sales tax referendum is the next step,” he said.
“This is a major milestone,” said Eric Peterson, the president of LEADER, a group dedicated to implementing a special tax for businesses along the corridor to benefit rail. The special tax along with the revenue from the sales tax is expected to provide the local share of the funding. The state and federal governments would also contribute.
“Our overall preference is rail now,” said Peterson. “To that extent it’s a good choice.”
The special tax will only be implemented if rail is chosen.
“I HAD BEEN under no illusion all along that they would listen to people asking for bus rapid transit or that they would go back and look at light rail, no illusion at all,” said Paul Hughes, the president of the Fairfax County Coalition for Smarter Growth and a vocal advocate of light rail as opposed to the heavy rail currently considered for the Dulles corridor.
“We’re frankly not surprised because this whole thing has been set up,” agreed Thomson Hirst, a Reston business owner who has been one of the most vocal opponents of the rail option. Hirst said the task force chose rail because of “vested interests.”
“We’ve tried our best to turn this around,” he said.
If the final selection is rail, the project will be carried out by three contractors, Washington Group, Bechtel and WestGroup. WestGroup would not be part of the team if the bus option is the final choice.
Hirst added that the comments about the effectiveness of a rapid bus system and about the cost effectiveness of the rail option had been “severely ignored.”
But Dittmeier said that the bus option was not adopted because it could not carry as many passengers as rail. The cost effectiveness of the project was also addressed in an environmental study released in June, he said.
“BRT has a lower cost-effectiveness than Metrorail. That was a consideration,” he said.
As for light rail, the task force considered it but ultimately eliminated it because it was “not found to be a viable alternative mode,” said Dittmeier.
A light rail system would have to be elevated through city streets so as not to affect the flow of traffic, which would not be any cheaper than elevating the heavy rail system in the recommendation.
Another concern mentioned during the public hearing was noise. Several residents of nearby communities said a rail line would be too loud.
According to Dittmeier, the task force recommended building sound barriers to protect surrounding neighborhoods from additional noise. But he warned that the Dulles transit project would not do anything about current noise levels in the corridor.
“This rapid transit project should not be the avenue for mitigating existing noise effects, be it from a [rail] yard or from a freeway,” he said.