Try to find meeting space in the offices of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project, just try. Almost every conference room, table and flat surface in the two-floor office suite is packed with teams of people trying to find a way to bring down the costs of building the new metro line.
The preliminary cost estimate was $1.6 billion for an 11.6-mile rail extension from the existing West Falls Church station through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue in Reston. On June 24, those cost projections were revised upwards, with the new projections ranging from $1.7 billion to $2.4 billion.
If costs go too high, the project will no longer be cost effective enough to qualify for federal funding. ÒRail to Dulles may die in the next month or so,Ó said U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) in an interview with Connection reporters and editors.
Marcia McAllister, spokesperson for the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, agreed that there may be cause for concern. ÒWe agree that thereÕs a risk here to the project,Ó McAllister said.
The federal government planned to pay for half of the project. The state of Virginia will pay a quarter, and Fairfax County the other quarter. ÒIt canÕt be built without the federal dollars,Ó McAllister said.
Jennifer Aument, spokesperson for Dulles Transit Partners Ñ the contractors who will build the line if approved Ñ said engineers are working around the clock to find ways of cutting costs. She was confident that they will be able to bring the numbers down. ÒWeÕre going to develop a plan that works in a budget that makes sense,Ó Aument said.
ÒThe state knows the target it has to reach, said Dan Scandling, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10). Wolf has long been an advocate of the rail project. Scandling says that the project is now in the hands of stateÕs engineers. ÒThe ball is in the stateÕs court,Ó Scandling said.
Aument attributed the increases to general construction cost increases such as a spike in the price of steel and concrete, coupled with an increase in labor costs. Additional costs come from the general increase in real estate value.
Davis noted that the revised projections included some changes, which should already have been considered. ÒSome of those costs are probably foreseeable,Ó he said.
For example, the cost of electricity was not included in the initial projections, McAllister said. They are working with Dominion Virginia Power to see if anything can be done about the cost of power, she added.
THE FEDERAL TRANSIT Administration, the funding decision-maker, has established guidelines for cost effectiveness, which compare the cost of the project versus the time which commuters will save if it is built. This analysis is then expressed in terms of the how many dollars it costs to save a person per hour.
Under the old price structure, the administration projected that it would cost $21.08 per hour, considered ÒMedium-lowÓ in terms of effectiveness, according to information on their Web site. If that number hits $25 per hour, then the project is considered ÒlowÓ and would no longer be eligible for funding.
Representatives of the administration did not return phone calls by deadline.
The administration, said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chair Gerry Connolly (D), was likely to be a problem under any circumstance. ÒIts clearly lost its appetite for new starters across the nation,Ó he said.
The consequences of losing the rail project are bigger than the project itself. Most of Northern VirginiaÕs federal highway dollars have been allocated to the project, Davis said. ÒWeÕve put all of our eggs in this basket,Ó he said.
The rail project is part of a larger part of transportation legislation, which will fund projects across the country. If the project does not come to fruition, those funds will be distributed among those other projects, Davis said. ÒThat bill is a little underfunded as it is,Ó he said.
If the project should end, it will likely be five or six years before the opportunity for federal funding arises again. Although it is possible to secure funding in off-cycle years, it is more difficult, Davis said.
COST-CUTTING OPTIONS include virtually everything associated with the project, McAllister said. The only three items which are not on the table are the alignment, number of stations and using two sets of tracks, she said.
ÒRight now weÕve got to get the costs down, and there will be no Metrorail if we donÕt,Ó Aument said.
One possible change is the tunnel. Currently it is planned to be .75 miles long and 80 feet deep at it deepest point Ñ between the Route 7 and 123 interchange, near the communications tower and Da Domenico. Depth is measured to the top of the rail surface. The line could not go as deep, which would present a cost savings, or it could stay above ground, which would also be cheaper, McAllister said.
Different cuts could impact other cuts and some could be taken as a package making the computations very complex, McAllister said.
Cutting presents its own challenges, however. For example, if a pedestrian bridge is removed, then it will be harder for people to walk across the street to the station and would likely cause a decrease in ridership. If the number of people using the project drops too low, then the cost effectiveness ratio would go up.
Dulles Transit Partners themselves are engaged in a balancing act. As a private company it wants to maximize its profits, but pushing those too high could make the costs unreasonable. ÒEveryone is prioritizing and making sacrifices, and weÕre certainly involved in that,Ó Aument said. ÒCertainly, the one thing that hasnÕt changed is the need.Ó
ÒThis region would be profoundly damaged without rail to Dulles,Ó Connolly said.
The cost increases have heartened those opposed to the project. Prices will keep going up as construction progresses, said state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37). ÒThe whole thing is a total rip-off,Ó he said.
Those developing the project must present their final draft to the Federal Transit Administration by the end of August, McAllister said.
ÒItÕs going to be a very busy six weeks,Ó Aument said.
Connection reporter Brian McNeill contributed to this story.