Feds Give Dulles Rail OK

Feds Give Dulles Rail OK

Decision allows boosters to start engineering and lobby Congress for money

The Federal Transit Administration endorsed the Dulles Rail project on Thursday, June 17 in a move that will kickstart engineering on the project and allow it to compete for hundreds of millions of federal dollars.

The project now moves into “preliminary engineering,” which will refine cost estimates, look at acquiring right-of-way and moving utility lines before actual construction begins.

“It at least gets the process out of the study phase and into actual hard engineering which is something people talked about for 30 years and never actually happened,” said Karen Rae, director of Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Under preliminary engineering, she said, “you actually get into the nitty-gritty of what it takes to build the system. … You’ll see surveyors and people like that out there, but you’re not going to see the presence that you’ll see [later on during construction].”

LOCAL LEADERS hailed the FTA’s decision, saying they hoped it would serve as a catalyst to start building the 12-mile Metrorail extension linking the West Falls Church Metro station to Wiehle Avenue in Reston by the end of the decade. The second phase of construction would connect Wiehle Avenue and Dulles Airport.

“It’s very good news,” said Fairfax County Board chairman Gerry Connolly (D). “There’ve been enough delays in this project. I would hope we’ll get underway very quickly.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8th) called the FTA’s announcement “wonderful news.”

“This is what you would call a sine qua non — without this we would not be able to go forward,” he said.

Now the next major hurdle for the project is securing $600 million of federal funds to extend rail to Wiehle Avenue and another $600 million six years from now to extend it to the airport. Moran said the FTA’s approval makes it easier for project backers to lobby for money.

“Now that we have project development and engineering approved, it’s much more likely that we’ll be able to get the authorization through the transportation conference committee,” Moran said.

A conference committee in the U.S. House and Senate is meeting to finalize details on a 6-year transportation funding bill. The bill has already been delayed about nine months.

“We’re hoping that we might have it as early as next week,” said Moran. “If I were an optimist I would say by the end of next week. If I were a realist I would say before the July 4th [recess].”

Congress has already allocated $163 million to the project. About $40 million of that will be used for preliminary engineering, even though it is unclear at this point whether Congress will allocate the $600 million needed to build the first phase of the project.

Rae said Congress’ delay in passing the transportation bill could push back the project’s target dates of 2009 for the first phase and 2015 for the second phase.

FEDERAL OFFICIALS had originally expressed reservations about the project’s financing and about its team of contractors. But Tina Burke, an FTA spokesperson, said project backers had worked with the FTA to meet the agency’s “strict set of guidelines.”

“They met all of our requirements,” she said.

One of the agency’s concerns was that a quarter of project’s $1.5 billion cost for the first phase is set to come from the private sector through a special tax on businesses along the Dulles Toll Road. Moran said he’d been worried that questions surrounding the financing could have caused the FTA to balk.

“That does sometimes jeopardize an authorization request because the Federal Transit Administration worries about potential conflicts of interest,” he said. “But apparently we have resolved those concerns.”

WestGroup, a major Tysons Corner developer, was set to be a partner in the sole contractor on the project, Dulles Transit Partners, and FTA officials expressed reservations about WestGroup’s involvement. In response to those concerns, WestGroup dropped out of the partnership three months ago.

On Friday, the state signed an agreement with Dulles Transit Partners — now made of up engineering firms Bechtel and Washington Group — granting them the right to build the entire project.

Rae said the Department of Rail and Public Transportation had instituted constraints governing how much involvement WestGroup could have in the project.

“We had to deal with the conflicts of interest,” she said.

Opponents of the project have criticized the state’s reliance on a sole-source contract to build the rail extension, saying it would prove more expensive than a competitive bidding process.

One of those opponents, Ken Reid, said Friday that the FTA had been held hostage by political interests in its decision.

“The agency is no more than a rubber stamp, a purveyor of pork barrel for whatever politician wants it,” he said.