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Railing on Rail Plan

Reston public hearing on Dulles Rail plan elicits strong response from both sides of the tracks; funding formula and Wiehle station attacked.

Less than 24 hours after a united Herndon Town Council sent proponents of the proposed Dulles Corridor tax district back to the drawing board, rail supporters and opponents met in Reston to discuss the once invincible but suddenly beleaguered rail project.

Like many people last Wednesday, Cookie Adler, a Realtor in Reston, read the morning paper that all but pronounced the Rail-to-Dulles plan dead. On Wednesday night, Adler, a rail supporter, came to Langston Hughes Middle School to see if some of those initial media reports fueled by several prominent politicians were accurate. “I wanted to make sure that this is still a possibility and that this is still going to happen,” Adler said. “I don’t think it’s dead, because this is such a great thing for our region.”

While much of the buzz in the standing-room-only crowd swirled around the tax district and Herndon’s message-sending vote on Dec. 2, the Dec. 3 public hearing was not, at least not officially, about the funding of the long-anticipated 23.1 Dulles rail plan. Instead, the hearing was one of three planned meetings designed to elicit public input about the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) and proposed general plans and revisions. That fact was hammered home by Katherine Hanley, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who, as member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board of directors, ran Wednesday’s marathon meeting. And judging by some of the audible moans in the audience, it was also a fact that escaped and disappointed many in the audience. “This is not a hearing on how Fairfax County is going to pay for Dulles Rail,” Hanley told the crowd. “In other words, this is not a hearing on the special tax district.”

Officials from WMATA, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT) and the Commonwealth Transportation Board declined to publicly address the controversial funding proposal backed by the Landowners Economic Alliance for the Dulles Extension of Rail (LEADER) — the organization comprised of a handful of landowners in the Fairfax segment of the Dulles Corridor.

The current project's phased approach is tethered to the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) readiness to foot half the estimated $3.4 billion bill. To the chagrin of many in Fairfax County’s western regions including the Herndon Town Council, the FTA has not offered any guarantee it will fund the second phase of the project out past Herndon, Dulles International Airport and on into Loudoun County.

Plenty of citizens, however, did take up the issue during the public comment portion of the hearing.

MICHAEL COOPER, a senior vice president with Prentiss Properties, a Reston Town Center based company, was one of the first in a long line of pro-rail property owners who were decidedly anti-tax district and anti-Wiehle. While Cooper expressed frustration with the process, he made it clear that, despite what some on both sides of the debate have said, the project is not “dead.” “First off, we support [Rail-to-Dulles],” said Cooper, whose company owns more the two million square feet of commercial space in Fairfax County. “We do not, however, support Phase I ending at Wiehle and we think that the project funding is unfair and inequitable as evidenced by last night’s Herndon Town Council vote. This project is Rail-to-Dulles, not Rail-to-Wiehle. The businesses in Herndon and Reston should not be paying for 10 years in advance for their competitors to use in the corridor with no guarantee that it will ever make it out here.”

Echoing the comments of many in attendance, Cooper added that he and his company “stand ready to participate in a real dialogue,” before adding that “we need new leadership.”

Peter Johnston, of Boston Properties, agreed with his fellow Reston developer. “For one, we take issue with the proposal to Wiehle because it has never been considered. It is grossly unfair to that community, a community that cannot accommodate a terminus station. With the uncertainty of funding, you would be potentially hurting that community into perpetuity.”

Opposition to the tax district and the Wiehle station was not limited to commercial property owners. Longtime Reston resident and activist Vera Hannigan, who uses the current Wiehle park and ride every day on her commute into Washington, said she opposes the current plan to pay for the project and says the current proposal would “devastate our quality of life in Reston.” “We’re funding the entire package from day one for the rest of the corridor without a guarantee we will ever get to see it here,” she said.

“The only reason they added Wiehle was so they could fabricate a station in the corridor and the special tax district would allow all Tysons landowners to opt out of funding once Phase I of the construction was complete. Go back to the drawing board and come up with something that enhances our quality of life and does not destroy it.”

Reston Association (RA) president Susan Jones also noted the concerns that many of RA’s 50,000 residents have with the current configuration of Phase I. Long a supporter of rail in the Dulles Corridor, RA recently went public with their group’s unease and its support of extending construction to Herndon-Monroe. “We have grave concerns with the recommendation to end the first phase of construction at Wiehle Avenue and believe even a temporary terminus at Wiehle will have a major negative impact on the quality of life of those who live and work in the planned community of Reston,” Jones said. “We are concerned that our roads will fail with the added traffic created by a terminus station.

PROPONENTS OF THE RAIL PROJECT, like state Del. Ken Plum (D-32), used the meeting to reassure the public, that despite the Herndon setback, the Rail-to-Dulles train is still on track. “Rail in the corridor is very much alive,” said the Reston delegate who also serves as chairman of the Dulles Corridor Rail Association (DCRA). “The choice of rail is common sense and the wisdom of that choice becomes even more clear as economic prosperity returns to the corridor.”

Plum did try to reassure those skeptical of the financing plan, many of whom were in attendance on Wednesday night, that the embattled plan to end the estimated $1.5 billion Phase I of the project at Wiehle Avenue in Reston, rather than at the Herndon-Monroe Park and Ride is only a temporary stop along a “seamless” 23.1 mile route. Many landowners west of Tysons Corner, along with many Reston residents near the proposed station, have expressed concern that funding sources would dry up after Phase I, leaving commercial property owners holding the bag for a project that benefits their Tysons Corner competitors and leaves homeowners near Wiehle with an end-of-the-line station.

Talking to a crowd full of skeptics, Plum did his best to dissuade those fears. “It has always been our vision that when we are opening the station at Wiehle, we will be able to look west and see the project continuing,” he said, adding that special attention should be paid to Wiehle to help mitigate any potential problems caused by a “temporary terminus.”

But BRT advocate Tom Hirst said that given the language, dubbed by some as the “poison pill,” that allows members of the tax district to opt out of the project after Phase I, the two phases should be considered independently of each other. “These are two completely different projects. Phase I deserves its own DEIS,” Hirst said.

Hirst also took offense at the notion that the Federal government will pick up 50 percent of the eventual tab.” You are misleading the public,” he said. “If this thing has cost overruns, and it will have cost overruns, the Federal government will not commit one penny. You are writing a blank check that will burst the taxpayers in this county.”

Calling it an “important first step,” pro-rail advocate and DCRA board member Patty Nicoson said she was supportive of the Rail-to-Wiehle route. “Tysons is the downtown of Fairfax County,” said Nicoson, of Reston. “With this, some of the residents will now be able to get downtown.”

But like Plum, Nicoson warned of the necessity of preparing Wiehle for its position as a “temporary terminus,” including the possibility of allowing air-rights above the station which is scheduled to sit over the center of the Dulles Toll Road. “It’s really important to involve the community in the planning of the station. The designs proposed thus far are lackluster.”

Hanley’s successor and fellow rail booster, Chairman-Elect Gerald Connolly (D-Providence) ended the meeting with a reaffirmation of the project. “The idea that the second largest employment base in the region would not be served by rail is, to me, something that we can’t want to contemplate,” Connolly said. “At the end of the day, it’s hard to get anything that is perfect, but leadership is about leading. Is it perfect? Not much in life is. Is there a better alternative? No. We have to move forward with this.”