While “Rail to Wiehle” may not roll off the tongue like the oft-uttered “Rail to Dulles,” it may represent the next best thing for rail-proponents in the Dulles corridor. The four decade-long dream of bringing Metrorail to Dulles may have gotten 11 miles closer to its ultimate destination if a revised $1.5 billion plan outlined by Virginia officials last week becomes reality.
In a proposal that the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT) will submit to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) later this month, construction on Phase I of the Dulles Corridor Rapid Transit Project would begin as early as 2005. The proposed “Silver Line” would extend Metrorail service from West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston by 2009, said Karen J. Rae, the VDRPT director said on Wednesday. The plan calls for four Metro stops in Tysons Corner, the largest business center in the metropolitan region not currently served by Metrorail. By 2025, more than 200,000 new jobs and 200,000 additional people will reside in the corridor, officials said.
The VDRPT's decision to divide the 24-mile project into two phases was a result of FTA criticism last December when the federal agency blasted the project as too costly.
Rae added that the financial realities on all levels — federal, state and local — played a huge role in phasing the project. "But the Metro system was built in pieces and chunks," she said.
While the phased approach was largely expected, the terminus was a surprise to some. Bowing to concerns over traffic in and around Tysons Corner, rail officials extended the plan to Wiehle, which also seemed to signal a commitment to eventually bringing rail out past Dulles.
Rail proponent Patty Nicoson, the vice chair of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association, praised the announcement. "It is going to be a lot easier to get it out to the rest of the corridor than it would have if it had stopped in Tysons. The airport is a critical element," Nicoson said. "I think once the project gets started, they are not going to disband forces and stop."
UNDER THE CURRENT PROPOSAL, the Federal government would fund half the project, or nearly $750 million at a time when many similar “big ticket” projects are being turned down for funding. To date, Congress has allocated $142 million to the project.
In a press conference, Rae acknowledged the difficult road ahead for the revised plan. “It’s a tough environment,” she said. “I would not want to underestimate the competition for this kind of program.”
She added that the decision to move forward in phases was made, in part, because of conversations with her colleagues in the Federal government and she was now "hopeful" the FTA will look favorably on the new arrangement. “I think we will be able to work with the them and eventually get this approved," she said.
Nicoson, who called the news a "shot in the arm" for the struggling local economy, is also optimistic. "It signals that the state and FTA have reached an agreement on an acceptable proposal."
A PROPONENT of the plan to bring Rail to Dulles, Gov. Mark Warner expressed his support for the phased approach. “The region desperately needs this project. The problem won’t go away,” the governor said in a release. “New transit service is a critical part of the solution in this corridor.”
Rae insisted that the rail project was "critical" to the traffic problems plaguing Northern Virginia. “By 2010, five out of the eight major road ways in this corridor are expected to be in gridlock if we don’t do anything," Rae insisted.
The plan, according to officials, is the equivalent of adding four new traffic lanes to the Dulles Toll Road. This week, Rae will formally request to the FTA that preliminary engineering would begin later this year, Rae said. “We hope to get an ‘OK’ in the fall to begin preliminary engineering,” Rae said. “At the end of ’04 and ’05, we would begin negotiating a full funding grant agreement with the Federal government.”
THE PRELIMINARY ENGINEERING will cost $50 million, Rae said, adding that the process would help refine cost estimates generated in the environmental review process. “We will have much more detail about the final cost and also continue to fine tune our financial plan," Rae said.
Cost estimates for Phase I and its five new stations range from $1.5 to $1.8 billion. Rae said she understood those who would have liked to see the project go a little further west, to Reston Parkway or the Herndon-Monroe park-and-ride, but she said that was impossible given the financial constraints of each project partner. "To get to Wiehle, we are really pushing the threshold on what we can realistically get," Rae said.
Thomson Hirst of the Rapid Transit Action Committee, one of the chief opponents of the plan, doubted the numbers supporting the project to Wiehle. “These people are miracle workers, they said on the record in March that they would build the rail from West Falls Church to Tysons for $1.5 billion and now they apparently can build it out to Wiehle for free," Hirst, who supports expanding bus rapid transit systems (BRT) in the region. "It’s a preposterous statement. They cooked the books."
In her press conference, Rae refuted that argument. "That was not our quote. I think some other people did some math. When we said we were going to ask for about $1.5 billion from the Federal government, at that time people were thinking Tysons," she said, adding that she did not think $1.5 billion figure to Tysons was generated from her office. "We believe that the $1.5 to $1.8 billion for Metrorail to Wiehle is a good number, though we do have to do preliminary engineering."
Hirst said the rail to Dulles project, which he called a "national laughingstock" fit a pattern of similar "megaprojects" because proponents have shown a pattern of underestimating costs and overestimating ridership. "Cost overruns are routinely 100, 200, 300 percent and when you are talking a $1.5 billion dollar estimate, you are talking about real serious money and that can only be made up by state and local sources."
IN ADDITION to the 50 percent that the Federal government will be requested to fund, Fairfax County and the state will each be required to pay a quarter of the final bill. A majority of the state share will come from a 25 cent toll increase, to 75 cents, at the Dulles Toll Road main plaza and a 15 or 25 cent increase, to 50 cents, at the Toll Road ramps, Rae said. “There is no other way for the state share for this project to come forward without taking away from other critical projects.”
Though not unexpected, the decision to raise tolls raised many eyebrows around the county. "What they are doing here is breaking the agreement that my dad [the late Sen. Omer Hirst] made with the legislature and the people of this area. He persuaded everyone to trust the government. And the agreement he reached in the late 1970s was that once the bonds were paid off, the Toll Road would become a free public highway," said Hirst, whose father died the day before the announcement. "It makes the general public very skeptical about trusting the government and then you get backlashes like you saw with the sales tax referendum."
Nicoson said she didn't anticipate any strong backlash because of increased tolls. "It’s obvious we haven’t had a toll increase since the Dulles Toll Road was constructed. To get the key rail element, we think it is appropriate that tolls are increased," she said. "You have to weigh social, economic and environmental benefits from this rail project."
Fairfax County will be asked to provide the final 25 percent through funding from a special tax district for commercial properties in the Dulles Corridor, a tax that would raise real estate taxes on corridor property owners about 20 cents per $100. “In Fairfax County, we are pleased that commercial and industrial landowners have come forward with a proposal to provide all of the local financial support for this crucial project,” said Kate Hanley, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, in a statement.
NICOSON AND HIRST, Reston residents on opposite sides of the rail debate, did agree that additional planning is needed before a station is built in their backyard just west Wiehle Avenue. "The issue of ending at Wiehle, even if its only temporary, is going to require our community to be involved in a more detailed planning process," Nicoson said, adding that she would like to see a mixed use development project on the site, rather than a "Vienna-type" parking garage.
Because it would be a temporary terminal, the Wiehle station would be required to have a large parking garage that would hold at least 2,000 cars, Rae said. It would not, however, have a rail yard.
"At the end of the line, there will be traffic jams. It’s going to be a mess," Hirst said. "I think the citizens are going to be angry about putting a massive parking structure in an already congested area."
Vienna resident Bruce Bennett, of the Hunter Mill Defense League, is a longtime opponent of the rail to Dulles proposal and he and his wife Jody are nervous about the effects of the rail to Wiehle alternative. "There is serious concern in the corridor about it," Bruce Bennet said.
"When the tolls go up, side streets will see in a dangerous increase in traffic," Jody Bennett added. "This rail will not relieve congestion and it will hurt our air quality. This will be nothing more than a big blight on our community."