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Tough Decision on Tysons Rail

This was one weird meeting at the Fairfax Government Center: For about an hour on Monday afternoon, the County Board of Supervisors tried to pry information about the Dulles rail project out of the county's own staff members, some of whom could not answer fully because they were sworn to secrecy about details of the pending contract.

Too many secrets. They have plagued the public-private partnership deal to build the rail line. Public responsibility for building it has passed from the state of Virginia to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. When the trains start running, it will become the responsibility of the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority to operate them. Fairfax County, which will have all the stations in the first phase of the project, will be contributing $400 million through a local funding agreement, so the Board of Supervisors must sign off on that at its June 18 meeting.

If it doesn't, then this entire delicately structured deal -- which still must go through a final review and approval by the Federal Transit Administration after the Fairfax vote -- probably would collapse. It's unlikely the FTA would sign off on the $900 million federal contribution if a key player like Fairfax wasn't also signed up. (See the story by staff writer Amy Gardner in today's Post and staff writer Bill Turque's story in Friday's Post.)

That puts the Fairfax board members between a rock and a hard place. There's little chance the board will disapprove of the project on June 18, because the consequences would be so severe. But what makes them so uncomfortable is that at this late date, just two weeks before the crucial vote, they still haven't seen the contract.

It's not like they're voting on the location of a firehouse. This is likely to be the most significant vote they'll take in designing Virginia's largest jurisdiction. The decision to bring four Metrorail stations to the emerging city of Tysons
will be pivotal to the success of what probably will become the economic and social center of Northern Virginia.

Rarely is such a major public policy decision pieced together like this, with guns to the heads of public officials and blindfolds over their eyes.

By Robert Thomson  |  June 5, 2007; 8:16 AM ET
Categories:  Transportation Politics  
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Comments

Who needs to see the contract? Just assume that the tunnel is expected to cost an incredible amount of money and that in reality it will cost even more. Just call it the "Big Dig."

Posted by: Josey | June 5, 2007 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Dear Dr. Gridlock, The question the Board of Supervisors and the other major funding players should be asking is, "Will the FTA even approve the disbursement of the anticipated $900 million if the cost estimates keep escalating as they have for elevated rail?" This is a very dangerous situation because of the secrecy of the agreement, the lack of competition to get the costs down to even qualify for federal funding, and the inability for our leaders to look to the future when revenues drop due to businesses relocating and people not wanting to live near an ugly, elevated, and noisy structure. Also to Josey (who commented before me): The only way this will turn into another "Big Dig" is if the very company responsible for managing that Boston debacle is allowed to continue with their plans for elevated rail. Bechtel = Big Dig. It's time for open competition.

Posted by: Eric | June 5, 2007 10:52 AM | Report abuse

This contracting business is ludicrous. Of course you make it public - why give people reason to be suspicious? And why wouldn't you open it to competition? Then, also, request fixed price contracts - let the contractors bear the burden of price swings in commodities - it worked for the Wilson bridge, kept it on budget, although one bridge contractor is bankrupt. That's the capitalist market, if you are stupid you lose out (and the bonds posted will cover the stupidity margin). Instead, you have Bechtel preying on the fear that the feds will yank funding.

And of course, comparatively bid over vs. under. The entities involved should also evaluate long-term costs (metro, feds, state, county). Think like a business for once.

Posted by: Steven | June 5, 2007 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Metro promotes B.O.

Posted by: CankHat | June 5, 2007 1:15 PM | Report abuse

There is too much under the table dealing going on here. It could be more like the "Big Dig" than we would like as far as quality of construction goes. The county is rushing to build something that should not be rushed given its incredible expense. Virginia is notorious for being cheap on projects and having to fix them later. When will they learn? Tunnel supporters, where were you during the preliminary design phase? The feds have already said they will not approve a tunnel option. If these recent alternatives were presented then, things would be different now. The board of supervisors are ready to approve construction, not revisit design! All of this being said, I think that phase 1 of the project should be scrapped and redesigned. It is quite clear that there is something wrong with the process. Either the community was not properly involved, the traffic engineering was not performed properly, or a combination of effects. Too much is at stake for something that is obviously flawed to be allowed to be built.

Posted by: Sivad | June 5, 2007 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Sivad,
First off, tunneling technology has changed in the 5+ years that these discussions have been occurring. That's one change.

The second is that the Bechtel proposal SHORTENED the tunnel portion, then eliminated it completely, after the FTA had signed off. This is the main reason that the FTA funding is at risk.

Someone more involved with TyTunnel, can you elaborate? I am just in the peanut gallery to this boondoggle.

Joe

Posted by: Joe in SS | June 5, 2007 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Ah..public policy making, Washington-style. We the People? Not here.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | June 5, 2007 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Strategically, if the Board really wanted to pressure Kaine to reconsider a tunnel,they would do this:

-postpone the 6/18 vote
-hold a couple Town Halls for unrestricted public input
-advertise a full public hearing before they vote

Then the Board could rely on the voice of the people to back them when they tell Richmond they just can't vote to fund a $5.15 billion project for an elevated train.

Remember, Governor Kaine himself said the Board has NEVER told him they would not support an EL through Tysons. See http://www.raisingkaine.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=8725

Kaine needs to hear that from the Board NOW, and the best cover the Board has for taking that stand is the strong vibrant will of the citizens.

But here is what we have instead:

-The Board refused to allow public comment at yesterday's meeting, despite calls from TysonsTunnel.org and Providence District Candidate Charlie Hall (which they never even acknowledged receiving).
-The Board then defeated Kauffman's motion to hold a modified form of public hearing on 6/18
-Connolly has made it clear that he will push for everyone to vote "yes" so long as they see the contracts first, even just a few days in advance.

End result: Fairfax taxpayers and toll road commuters will be saddled with with an unending obligation to fund what will surely be ever-escalating costs. Remember, the 6/18 vote is not just to fund $400 million, it is $400 million "plus 16.1% of whatever" -- meaning the Fairfax citizens' share of the inevitable cost increases.....

There is an election on June 12th that will determine our Providence District Supervisor for the next four years. Incumbent Linda Smyth in seconding Kauffman's motion did not ONCE express any wish for citizen input -- she wanted only enough time to review the contract materials herself and to consult with other Board members. By contrast, challenger Charlie Hall has publicly called for open Town Halls and for making sure we ALL understand the risks before writing this enormous check.

Vote for Charlie Hall on June 12th: http://www.charliehall2007.org


Posted by: Deborah Reyher | June 5, 2007 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Debate Lover | June 5, 2007 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Tyson's the economic and SOCIAL center of NoVa? I hope not! :)
That aside we should hava a public hearing before the Fairfax Supervisors vote -- amazing that there's no public transparency, not to mention, no competitive bidding on the biggest transportation project in the area. CA had open bids for a bridge that collapsed, and it came in under budget! Why can't we do that in VA?

Also, Governor Kaine said if the localities wanted a tunnel, he would go along. the Governor.

Posted by: Pat | June 5, 2007 5:59 PM | Report abuse

The board of supervisors needs to find theirs and vote "No". The tax payers need to have all the inofrmation. No secrets etc. The board ahs a responsibility to the tax payers not jsut the commuters and their political contributors. Everyone knows the current chairman is in the back pocket of developers and he and his family have profited handsomely from these ties. The current Board of Supervisors in Fairfax County is crooked and thakes so many bribes that it makes the Loudon County board look like abunch of Mother Teresa's. When the on Jack Herrity is for change and the flow info something is rotten in Fairfax!

Posted by: vaherder | June 6, 2007 6:38 AM | Report abuse

I cannot understand why we cannot build a tunnel that apparently everyone wants and agrees is a better idea. I cannot understand how all this contract secrecy is in any way beneficial to the citizens of this county. I cannot understand how our elected representatives are thinking this is the way to treat the voters.

Posted by: brian shannon | June 6, 2007 11:55 AM | Report abuse

No transparancy = No democracy
No Leadership = No democracy
No citizen input = No democracy
Bullying & threats = No democracy
Forced hand & timetable = No democracy
Developer funding of BOS election races = NO DEMOCRACY
No democracy = Bad outcome for Fairfax citizens
Message to BOS:
Walk away from this deal! Demonstrate some leadership and backbone. Represent the citizens and not the special interests contributing to your reelection. Are you guys total amateurs here or do you really believe that holding out for what the citizens prefer will kill the deal? Isn't there already too much invested from those that will ultimately reap huge profits by extending Metro to Dulles to allow this to die? Public officials look totally assinine and or corrupted when they become timid players in implementing their role as brokers for their constituencies in setting up a deal of this magnitude. Supervisor Kauffmann ( Lee District) was the only one that was not acting like a total wuss at the Monday meeting. Of course he is not running for reelection so he is not beholden to those special interests. Could it be that he is the last member of this Board that believes citizens do have a role in local decision making that is on an equal footing with those that hold the attention of the Supervisors behind closed doors. I recall hearing Mr. kauffman state at a Town Hall meeting nearly two years ago to which he was the only Supervisor present (others were attending a meeting with Tysons developers) that land use issues in Fairfax County were going to be the deciding factors in the outcomes of future elections. I sincerely hope that this prediction is the case next November and that the citizens sweep the BOS clean of those that continue to cater to their biggest financial contributors. Any candidate that runs and demonstrates that they are free of special interest contributions to their reelection has my support.

Posted by: Martin | June 6, 2007 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Actually its not a tough decision at all! The fact that the County Government is unable to get straight answers from the designers and contractors, or the FTA, for a project that will tear up vast tracks of one of the county's major commercial and residential centers, is a reason to immediately reject this project. Since the inception of this project the FTA has treated the Commonwealth like a dog, promising a $900 million treat, but only if we do as we're told, and for what? 1/4 the cost of the project (as budeted today, the cost most likely will increase signifcantly). What does the Commonwealth get in return for this "treat"? A design that has been rejected as an infior option by most engineers (except ofcourse Bechtel and the FTA), that will cost the Commonwealth and WMATA more money to operate and maintain (the FTA is only concerened with capital costs because it does pay for operations / maintenance), will require replacement a lot sooner than the tunnel option, and that will place a 60' concrete snake through the heart of Tysons Corner. Lovely. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, please please vote this down!

Posted by: YAinDC | June 7, 2007 10:37 AM | Report abuse

My apologies that should have said:

(the FTA is only concerned with capital costs because it does NOT pay for operations / maintenance)


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