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‘It's Not Over Till It's Under’

More than 300 citizens show up for Tysons Tunnel Town Hall meeting

Lina Orr was never a fan of having an elevated Metro line in Tysons — but after seeing a photo depicting exactly how tall portions of the aerial design will be, Orr's sentiments on overhead rail went from unenthusiastic to horrified in a matter of seconds.

"It was an excellent presentation, and I think they gave a lot of information that I think most people don't realize, but it wasn't until they showed us what 70 feet really is, that I was just shocked," said Orr, who lives in Vienna. "I don't think the community has any real concept of what 70 feet looks like, and if they did, I think there would be much more of a community uprising."

Orr expressed these thoughts on her way out of last week's Nov. 15 Tysons Tunnel, Inc. Town Hall meeting, which packed a crowd of more than 300 people into the McLean Community Center's Alden Theatre.

The Tysons Tunnel coalition was started by the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce in late September, shortly after Gov. Timothy Kaine announced his decision to support the aerial design option for the incoming Tysons Metrorail system, part of building rail to Dulles airport.

The organization, Tysons Tunnel, has two primary goals — to persuade the Commonwealth of Virginia to seriously reconsider the 3.5-mile underground tunnel option for Tysons Metro, and to persuade the Commonwealth to allow the final design and construction work of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project to be open to competitive bidding.

OVER THE SUMMER, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) panel analyzed both the underground and above-ground Metrorail options and presented Kaine with its findings, which were strongly in favor of a large-bore tunnel. Despite this, Kaine opted for the above-ground design — primarily because the panel of expert engineers had predicted that the tunnel option could potentially cost up to $200 million more than the aerial design.

As of right now, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) plans to contribute $900 million to the entire $4 billion Dulles Corridor Metrorail project. However, their funding is contingent on the project meeting certain set standards of cost-effectiveness. Fearing that the more expensive large-bore tunnel option would jeopardize federal funding, Kaine chose the overhead design.

The Tysons Tunnel coalition believes that Kaine made the wrong decision on several accounts, and the organization is determined to prove that an underground Metro system makes sense both aesthetically and financially. Over the last two months, Tysons Tunnel formed its own panel of experts and created a collaborative presentation that systematically outlines why the tunnel option should be revived. This presentation was shown at the Nov. 15 meeting.

BRENDA BOHLKE, an engineer and tunnel expert who served on the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) panel that reviewed the two Metro design options for Kaine, was the first speaker at last week's community meeting. Bohlke said she was "shocked that the decision was made in favor of putting the tunnel aside and going ahead with the overhead option" since the ASCE panel had detailed the numerous reasons why a tunnel would be in the best interests of the community.

Bohlke also addressed the rumor that the technology required to build a 43-foot diameter large-bore tunnel in this region does not exist, dismissing such talk as untrue.

"It's existing technology that has been in place for 20-some years … and I think this is one of the better geological environments ever, with respect to tunneling," she said.

Tunnel engineer and construction expert Walter Mergelsberg was another Tysons Tunnel panelist who attested to this fact. Mergelsberg displayed slide after slide of real-life, existing examples of successful large-bore tunnel projects around the globe.

"Don't believe anybody who says this technology hasn't been used and hasn't been proven," said Mergelsberg. "We can do it and the technology is sound."

SEVERAL of the Tysons Tunnel panelists spent time explaining how an underground rail system would allow Tysons Corner to be a more attractive, pedestrian-friendly community.

McLean native William Gallagher Jr., an architect and urban planner with transit-oriented development planning experience, pointed out that underground rail systems make it possible for additional station entrances to be constructed at any point in the future. Another added benefit is the fact that the land above the tunnel is left clear, making it available for parkland, open space, residential, retail and/or commercial development.

"The tunnel will leave you with a clean slate and open land," said Gallagher. "The point is that good infrastructure provides services but it doesn't hinder any activity that you want to do."

Bohlke also emphasized the flexibility allowed by an underground system.

"With a clear surface you can actually have a livable community there, which would be nice," said Bohlke. "Most of the impacts go away when you put it underground because when you put it underground it's out of sight, out of mind."

Bohlke added that construction of an overhead structure will cause significant traffic delays, and will require the removal and replacement of 28 utilities along Route 7, as well as cause 168 utility conflicts.

"With the tunnel, for the most part you would avoid 80 percent of utilities," she said.

THE TYSONS TUNNEL panelists also discussed issues of finance, saying that while construction of a tunnel would be more costly, it would actually save money in the long run, as underground rail systems have a predicted lifespan of 120 years — twice the longevity of an elevated system. Part of this is due to the fact that underground tracks are not exposed to weather, so in addition to avoiding structural wear and tear, underground rail also eliminates weather-related commuter delays.

According to the ASCE report on Tysons Metro, the annual maintenance cost of an elevated structure is $5 million more than that of a tunnel — not including the maintenance costs of elevated walkways. The ASCE report also states that any additional construction costs of a tunnel system would be recovered in 40 years or less.

Tysons panelist John Pisarkiewicz, an economist with experience in tax, land use and construction economic issues, predicts that an overhead Metro structure will also cause Tysons property values to drop.

"You're going to cause serious economic injury if you go ahead with the overhead option," said Pisarkiewicz, who lives in Vienna.

Panelist Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, also believes that the aerial design will damage the Tysons economy.

"There is a very real risk that the elevated design will permanently set Tysons back, and it may very well never recover," said Schwartz.

Pisarkiewicz said that retail sales will suffer as a result of the congestion and obstruction caused by four years of extensive above-ground construction in the Tysons area.

"The impact is huge, but the long term consequences are going to be worse," he said.

Tysons Tunnel panelist Patrick Reilly, former chief consul for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), said that "the FTA at this point does not favor either the tunnel or the aerial version."

"I think that's a misperception out there," said Reilly.

He added that the FTA has not yet made a multi-year funding commitment to the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project, and that typically, the FTA enters into such a commitment one year after the start of a project.

"This means we've got some time," said Reilly. "So between now and December 2007 is when you've got to get your work done."

He also noted that project costs could go up as much as 15 percent before endangering its cost-effectiveness rating with the FTA.

"We don't conceive that the project costs will go up at all, but this is important because it responds to some of the arguments that are being made against the project," said Reilly. "But the most important point I want to leave with you is that the FTA has not said yes to aerial, and it has not said no to tunnel."

IN ADDITION to persuading the Governor to change his decision and approve the underground Metro design, the Tysons Tunnel coalition is also determined to convince the Commonwealth of Virginia to open up the Dulles Corridor Metro design project to competitive bidding.

Currently, Dulles Transit Partners (DTP), which is a consortium of Bechtel and Washington Group International, has a contract for preliminary engineering work on the Dulles Metrorail project. Dulles Transit Partners is not being required to bid against competitors in pricing this project — a fact that has members of Tysons Tunnel and some residents completely baffled.

"You have no way of knowing what the real tunnel costs are without a competitive bid," said Bulke.

Tysons Tunnel panel speaker Christopher Farrell, Judicial Watch Board member and director of its Investigations and Research department, said that taxpayers are the big losers when the process of competitive bidding is eliminated.

"The public is best served when there is an open and fair competition," said Farrell. "No-bid contracts are disaster for the public ... you deserve a transparent process where the best bid and the best value ends in the best interests of Fairfax County."

MANY RESIDENTS are angry that the overhead design was approved despite evidence pointing to an underground rail system as the most advantageous option for the community. Although the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has advocated for tunnel all along, many residents say that the board could have, and should have, done more.

"Everyone is throwing around whose decision it is … but it seems to me that we were the 800-pound gorilla that was left out of the whole thing," said Amy Tozzi, a resident of The Regency in McLean. "Where was our Board of Supervisors when all of this was going on?"

Steve Sulzer, president of the West Lewinsville Heights Citizens Association, said he would also like to see the Board of Supervisors exhibit some initiative.

"It's time for our Board of Supervisors … to get back with our federal officials and just say no," said Sulzer.

Tozzi said she was impressed with the Tysons Tunnel presentation, but feels that it is imperative that Kaine see it as well.

"If we are going to construct something for future generations, they should not be cursing us at the end of 20 years," said Tozzi.

Scott Monett, president of Tysons Tunnel and the McLean Chamber of Commerce, said that he would love nothing more than to have Kaine see the Tysons Tunnel presentation, but thus far, Monett has been unable to get a response from the Governor's office.

"I keep calling and leaving messages, but no one returns my calls," said Monett. "I'm just going to keep trying."

AT THE CONCLUSION of the Tysons Tunnel presentation, citizens were given the opportunity to ask questions. Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois posed the first query, and asked a question that was on the minds of many.

"I think we all agree that the tunnel is the best option, but we don't have to persuade ourselves," she said. "So what do we do when we have been told by our bi-partisan members of Congress … that we are not to pursue the tunnel any further, and when we have been told by Richmond that tunnel is not an option?"

Stewart Schwartz said that the town meeting was a first step, and that the next would be for citizens to take action by signing the Tysons Tunnel petition, getting others to sign the petition, and by contacting their local congressman and encouraging their friends and neighbors to contact their local congressman.

"The buck really does stop with elected officials," said Schwartz.

There are several next steps for the Tysons Tunnel Coalition — the first of which is to continue with its fund-raising efforts.

"Essentially, we have to fund a $3 million engineering study," said Monett.

Tysons Tunnel will also continue in its efforts to collect 160,000 signatures for its petition, which currently has a total of 3,250. The petition simply asks that the Commonwealth of Virginia reconsider the tunnel option and open up the project to competitive bidding.

A Tysons Tunnel Town Hall community meeting will be held in Vienna in the coming month, but an exact date and location has not been confirmed.