Metro to Dulles: What Next?
The warning signs had been there for many months, yet few could bring themselves to predict that the feds would drop the big one on the most expensive public works project in the history of the Washington area, the extension of Metro to Dulles International Airport.
But that's just what the Federal Transit Administration did yesterday, and the state of Virginia, mass transit advocates, commuters, and the giant companies that hold the $1.6 billion contract to build the railway are reeling today.
Was this political payback, a poke in the eye from a Republican administration that's no fan of mass transit to an increasingly Democratic state where power is shifting toward liberal northern Virginia? Or was this a reflection of the arrogance and bloat of the Metro planning process, which has more chiefs than you can count and has struggled for years without success to reach consensus on crucial questions such as whether to tunnel through the Tysons Corner area? Was this an honest accounting of the likelihood that Metro to Dulles would become our region's version of Boston's Big Dig--a preposterously expensive and lengthy undertaking that's more trouble than it's worth?
Nearly all the local players in the project seem to feel double-crossed. After all, the feds have pumped $140 million into the planning process, dishing out assurances all along that they accept the crying need for relief from road congestion as well as the desirability of providing rail access to Dulles, which is one of a handful of the world's most important airports not to have any rapid transit service. (And the feds were only asked to contribute 20 percent of the cost of this project, compared to the usual 50 percent or even 80 percent on other big transportation jobs around the country.)
If northern Virginia's tech corridor is the key to the state's economy, which it is, and if Dulles is the focal point for NoVa's tech and related industries, then getting the transportation piece right is the highest priority the state should have. But the Bus Rapid Transit advocates and the just-double-the-width-of-the-highways crowd and the anti-taxers and the downstate yokels have all carped and moaned at every turn in the planning process. The resulting mess, compounded by the state's failure to decide until late in the game how to do the project and who should manage it, seems to have contributed to the feds' sense that this thing is star-crossed.
"The Dulles Project," writes FTA chief James Simpson, "has encountered an extraordinarily large set of challenges including changes in mode and sponsorship, a revised termination point, a dramatically escalating budget, delays in the development of the public-private contract, local dissention [sic] about the design of the project, and lawsuits."
Simpson's letter makes it sound as if Dulles rail is all but dead. Gov. Tim Kaine gets to write a pretty-please letter, but Simpson seems about as open to changing his mind as the Bush administration is to socialized health care.
So, if the feds really do stop the flow of dollars to the Dig to Dulles, what next? What can the state do?
--A pause of a year or two might be good for the project's future--if the Dems regain the presidency. Simpson is not a total enemy of mass transit--he just approved more than a billion bucks for New York City's Second Avenue subway project, an undertaking every bit as massive as Metro's Dulles extension. But a transit-friendly Democrat in the White House would likely be far more aggressive about making sure Metro found a way to get the new rail line.
--Advocates for bus rapid transit will jump to the fore, and there might even be a resurgence of interest in light rail. Both modes are vastly cheaper than heavy rail, and both have avid fans in the area and in the transportation biz.
--Ditch Bechtel. The company that just this week agreed to shell out $352 million of a total $407 million payment to settle criminal and civil claims against its botched work on Boston's Big Dig tunnel project is also one of the two big companies that make up Dulles Transit Partners, which got the contract to design and build the rail line. The feds don't specifically mention Bechtel in their letter, but they express deep concern about likely cost overruns and delays, an echo of the horrific experience in Massachusetts.
--Bag the Airports Authority. The feds did get very specific about their severe doubts that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which the state chose to run the construction process before handing a finished rail line over to Metro, has the ability and experience needed to control the costs and schedule of such a big, complex project. The notion that Metro was stretched too thin and is in too precarious a financial position to manage its own construction project certainly did not breed trust over at the FTA.
--Give Metro the dedicated funding stream it so desperately needs. Almost alone among metropolitan transit systems in this country, Metro has no steady, reliable source of money for capital projects and operational costs.
"Instead," writes the Brookings Institution's Robert Puentes, "Metro--unlike all other major systems--remains uniquely dependent on annual operating subsidies from its member jurisdictions as well as revenue it generates internally from passenger fares, advertising and parking." The feds in their letter yesterday focused on "uncertainties" about Metro's "ability to finance its ongoing capital needs systemwide."
Opponents of the Metro project are busy gloating and cheering today, but their alternatives to the project are weak and shortsighted. The idea that the answer to northern Virginia's traffic problem is to make I-66 eight lanes inside the Beltway is considerably more far-fetched than the notion that rail to Dulles will create traffic nirvana. Extending Metro to Dulles won't make anyone's commute a breeze, but it is an important step toward easing the rate of growth of congestion, and it's a necessity if the airport is to maintain its ability to serve as the engine of economic expansion in the region.
The feds' move guarantees a few more years of worsening pain for Virginia commuters. Beyond that, it's also an opportunity for Virginia political and business leaders to go back to the drawing board and produce a streamlined plan for another administration to consider.
By Marc Fisher |
January 25, 2008; 7:41 AM ET
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