Fairfax County supervisors are set to cast a key vote on rail to Dulles on June 18 that, if approved, would set aside any doubt whether an elevated track would serve the metro extension through Tysons Corner. Public scrutiny of the project has escalated past the track option, tunnel or elevated, to process and political analyses.
"We as a population are going to pay for something that we don’t even want and that doesn’t serve our interest," said Diane Poldy, president of the Vienna-Tysons Regional Chamber of Commerce. Poldy said the elevated track through Tysons Corner would be destructive to the area’s businesses.
According to Poldy, county supervisors are making decisions that benefit the western part of the Dulles Corridor, because it has more residents and, therefore, voters. Smaller populations in Tysons Corner, Vienna and McLean are underrepresented as supervisors gather support in Reston and Herndon ahead of November elections. "It pains me to see businesses in Tysons Corner destroyed for the benefit of points west," she said. Poldy projects that a small number of people would use the elevated track, which would further limit movement in and out of the state’s largest business center. This, she argued, could force the businesses to leave Tysons Corner. Meanwhile, letters in support of the elevated track are being sent from Reston and other points west of Tysons Corner. "Where are all those businesses going to move," said Poldy, indicating that the western part of the corridor is a probable destination.
Chair of the Reston Chamber of Commerce, Marion Myers, said the entire Dulles Corridor is one organism, and that this is not a Reston versus Tysons issue. "If Tysons fails, we’re going to fail," said Myers. Although the project is not perfect, Myers said it serves a public good and that she hopes the supervisors, after careful consideration as elected officials, would vote through Phase 1 of the project on June 18.
PHASE 1 CONSTITUTES 11.6 miles of the 23-mile extension from West Falls Church to Loudoun County. It envisions five stations, four in Tysons Corner and one at Wiehle Avenue in Reston. On Wednesday, June 6, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority approved a $1.6 billion contract with Dulles Transit Partners — a consortium of Bechtel Infrastructure, Inc. and Washington Group International — to construct Phase 1 of the project. According to Tara Hamilton, the authority’s spokeswoman, the estimated cost of Phase 1 is somewhere between $2.4 and $2.7 billion, and that includes construction as well as project management, purchase of rail cars and utility relocation among other factors. Hamilton said contingencies are in place for unanticipated cost overruns in the negotiated agreement.
"Without a doubt, the most difficult and complex contracts are construction contracts," said Thomson Hirst. A lifelong citizen of Fairfax County, Hirst is a Reston resident and a principal at Mason Hirst, a Herndon-based business. He said government oversight of the contract has been inadequate. County supervisors received the contract on Thursday, June 7, and are expected to vote on it on June 18. "This is worse than sending out a JV team to play the NFL champion," said Hirst. The danger, he said, is that the supervisors will commit the county and its residents to an open-ended contract for a project that could easily cost a billion dollars more than it is estimated to cost. The largest public investment in the county’s history, he said, is being handled in a reckless manner.
Hirst added that the rail to Dulles project would have a tremendous impact on future projects in the region, draining funds out of much needed improvements. "For less than 5 percent of the cost of Dulles Rail, it is possible to substantially improve the bus system," he said. "None of the elected officials are looking at the impact," said Hirst. He is also disappointed there was no open bidding on the multi-billion dollar contract awarded to Dulles Transit Partner, a claim others refute.
STATE DEL. KEN PLUM (D-36) said the Public Private Transportation Act, under which the rail to Dulles project is proposed, requires an open bid process. When the process was first opened, the only two companies to submit a bid were Bechtel and Washington Group. Plum said that after the bidding process closed, then-Gov. Jim Gilmore had the two bidders combine into one to make best use of both company’s resources. The question of whether to build an elevated track through Tysons Corner was settled in 2002, after the tunnel option was deemed too costly. "Recent talk about the process is not about the process," said Plum. Rather, it is about keeping the tunnel option alive, which he said would almost certainly lose the $900 million of federal money slated for Phase 1 of the project. Plum added the state has been careful to review all agreements related to the project, and that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) — in charge of releasing the federal money for the project — will do the same before releasing $900 million it could use on other projects nationwide. "It is the most thorough of any reviews, bar none," said Plum. Also, he added, about 45 percent of the Phase 1 work will be open to bidding for subcontractors and those providing materials and equipment. If Phase 1 moves according to plan and schedule, the line will become operable in 2013.
The FTA is yet to conduct its risk assessment of the project, which is scheduled for August. Poldy said she would not be surprised to see the FTA vote the project down because of its cost. While the business community in Tysons Corner wants the metro there, Poldy said the tunnel is essential to the vitality of the area and to the ridership of the rail extension. "Do we want rail to Dulles at any cost? No," said Poldy. People would not use the elevated track, because elevated stations would not be convenient, she said. She added that people would not use the parks and open space under the track either, while trains traveled above their heads. Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) said she is concerned the elevated track would present a barrier in Tysons Corner.
Hirst said the elevated track would have a devastating impact on the corridor. "It is going to devastate Tysons," he said.