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Will Feds Pay For Rail?

First they wanted to lay train tracks all the way out to Loudoun County by 2010. Then there was talk of stopping the train line at Tysons Corner until the dollars were lined up to push towards Dulles Airport and Loudoun County. Now state officials have outlined a plan to extend the first phase of the rail project to Wiehle Avenue in Reston by 2009.

Rail advocates hailed the so-called "Silver Line" as a realistic and achievable project. But rail-to-Wiehle is likely to face the same obstacles that plagued rail-to-Dulles and rail-to-Tysons. Chief among those is the question of federal funding.

For Tysons Corner and Reston to see Metro stations in their midst by 2009 it will take a major investment on the part of the federal government at a time of budget deficits. According to Karen Rae, director of the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation, the state will ask the feds to contribute $750 million in the next six years towards the project, an average of $125 million a year. Rae said the rest of the project's $1.5 billion price tag will come from the state and the localities. The federal government has already contributed $142 million to the project and may approve an additional $25 million this fall.

Patty Nicoson, a rail advocate who heads the Dulles Corridor Rail Association, said she was not afraid that the state's request might be too high.

"I think the project is so important that we've got to make our case," she said.

But Thomson Hirst, a Reston developer who favors a rapid bus system over a rail line, said Congress might not be so inclined to send such a large amount of money to Northern Virginia.

"What if the feds say, 'we can't do that?'" he asked.

THIS FALL, Congress is set to debate its transportation spending plan for the next six years. The Bush Administration has proposed a $247 billion transportation plan that would provide $9.5 billion for big ticket transit projects like the Silver Line. The House Transportation Committee is asking for $375 billion for the next six years but there is no figure on how much of that would be earmarked for transit construction projects, spokesperson Justin Harclerode said.

By contrast, Congress appropriated $218 billion for transportation in the past six years, $8.2 billion of that for transit construction.

But the amount of money the federal government allocates to transportation depends on gasoline tax revenues across the country. And while those revenues have been rising, they have not been rising very fast.

As a result, both the Administration's and the House Committee's spending proposals may be optimistic, said Kenneth Orski, a transportation expert who edits an industry newsletter called Innovation Briefs.

"The Highway Trust Fund can generate only approximately $250 billion over six years," he said.

This means that the amount of money available for transit construction may not be as high as expected.

The discrepancies between the Administration's transportation package and the House Committee's could delay passage of the authorization bill.

AT THE SAME time, there are 32 projects, including the Silver Line, already set to receive federal money for transportation construction this year if the House approves the Appropriation Committee's recommendations. Dozens more projects are in the pipeline. Those include a light rail project in Seattle and commuter rail projects in New York and Minneapolis.

"You have this massive amount of projects competing for this tiny amount of funding," said Hirst.

All this makes the federal government unlikely to want to spend $125 million a year for the next six years to help extend Metrorail. The federal government has never allocated more than $100 million a year for a transit project, said Ray Pelletier, executive director of the Northern Virginia Technology Council.

"I think people have been rather optimistic," he said.

But Nicoson suggested the project might be able to get some money from the new Department of Homeland Security because of its implications for national defense.

"Everybody who is involved with it is feeling committed to getting rail to Dulles Airport and to Loudoun County," she said.

UNTIL CONGRESS and the Administration work out their funding differences, local officials are moving forward on their proposal. Earlier this month, the Department of Rail and Public Transportation asked the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for permission to begin the preliminary engineering work for a rail line in the Dulles Corridor. As part of the application, the state is asking for $50 million in federal funds to get the project launched.

If the FTA gives to go-ahead and the money, it will signal the federal government's commitment to the project, advocates say. Nicoson said the FTA's approval would be a "downpayment on the project."

Last week, a spokesperson for the FTA said the agency would review the application very closely.

The transit construction program "is probably one of the most closely watched of any grant program in the federal government," said spokesperson Kristi Clemens. "We have to make sure that they've met the criteria."