Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

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
Previous: Preservation Update: Lucas Family Prevails Over D.C. | Next: Orpheus Puts Down His Lyre (No More Records)


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I hardly think that the "big dig" was "more trouble than its worth" - the changes to the City of Boston are simply astounding when you see the benefits for pedestrian egress to the waterfront, reduction in noise, etc. Was it mismanaged? Absolutely. But to insinuate that it wasn't required to do this upgrade (making up for the mistakes of the 1950's) is nonsense.

On to Dulles: Even the original metro planning from the mid-60s discussed Dulles extensions - but didn't include 4 stations in Tysons. There's some interesting history on these web sites.. worth a look - The "phase map" shows the dulles rail to Dulles - following the access road only (no diversion to Tysons) - and no extension beyond Dulles. Another alternate proposal was to continue past west falls church on 66, which has additional possibilities for Dulles services. The entire Dulles project appears to be wedged around 4 stations in Tysons corner, and that's most likely where all this cost blooming is going on. and the biggest potential for bigdig like bloat.

Posted by: alexandria | January 25, 2008 8:48 AM


Why not a new VRE line or an express train, starting out at Winchester, with stops in Sterling, at Dulles, in Reston, at Tysons, and Rosslyn (possibly terminating at Rosslyn)?

Dulles is a good 25-30 miles away from DC. A Silver/Orange line trip would take over an hour. Other cities with major airports either are no more than 15 miles away (Boston, London Heathrow, Atlanta, Chicago) or, if further out, use some form of commuter rail or high-speed rail to get there (London Gatwick, Paris's Charles de Gaulle, Rome's Fiumicino).

As for Tysons, why not a spur off of the Orange Line that terminates there?

Posted by: NoVA Dem | January 25, 2008 8:57 AM

Here's the fundamental problem:

"Simpson emphasized his concerns about Metro, likening the Dulles expansion to putting a two-room addition onto a house that is falling down. "First, you have to fix the house," he said later at a news conference. "Metro's operational issues have become really serious over the last several months," he said. "I spent several hours with senior staff at Metro talking about their unfunded needs. They're holding up some of their subway stations with jacks. They're holding other subway stations up with two-by-fours and plywood. I could go on."

Does anyone TRULY think Metro can run trains reliably and timely on a 30 mile extension? Any idea how many outgoing flights will be missed at IAD if you try to rely on Metro to get you there on time? One smoking light fixture and you're never making your plane. And with Bechtel as prime contractor, there will be plenty of smoking light fixtures.

Posted by: nocando | January 25, 2008 9:10 AM

The metro extension to Dulles via Tysons Corner is a project that is embraced by both Republican and Democrat officials in Virginia. Not only would it alleviate traffic congestion, it would greatly enhance business growth and development in the Northern VA area - something that everyone is for. Cancelling this project after authorizing so much money to be spent on its planning seems to me like a tremendous waste, and I am shocked that everything is ending so quickly. This administration obviously does not have much regard for improving the capital region.

Posted by: Angry in DC | January 25, 2008 9:17 AM

I think it is abundantly clear that what FTA is saying is that they have no confidence that the players involved have a clue about what they are doing ... too many cooks in the kitchen and no one accountable for the fundamentals.. like.. on time and on budget and Metro itself being capable of financially coping with additional infrastructure.

FTA is saying they don't like the plan or to be more blunt - they fear that there is no real plan.. just an idea... driven, in part by the prospect of "free" fed money.

Pity though, we don't have the same rigorous process for roads also...

at the end of the day.. this is not solution-oriented IMHO.

Somebody has to show some leadership and it is clear that FTA is not... going to say.. what needs to happen to save the project at least in general terms...

to NOT build the project .. to kill it outright.. means what?

Is that the BEST outcome?

Posted by: LarryG | January 25, 2008 9:29 AM

Angry and Marc,

Your allegations that this project would alleviate traffic congestion are completely unfounded and can easily be calculated reading some of the literature of the project. The primary reason is that Fairfax County was planning on creating zoning variances to increase density further in Tysons - far above what is currently approved (and not even yet constructed) - and this line, even if EVERY SINGLE PASSENGER AT FULL CAPACITY were to have Tysons as their origin or destination, could not handle the increase in load. So, not only would it not help the current capacity problem, the congestion would be exasperated by the increase in density.

Also, every single person that takes the Orange line should be sighing a relief. They think it is overcrowded now - just wait until they have half the trains b/c the Silver Line would be using the same track and add more passengers to that route.

Overall, this plan would have been a monstrous waste of tax dollars and needs to be redone and rethought. All the time spent on it just served to pork it up and, as the FTA so correctly states, make it a terrible project.

I would wholeheartedly support a train line from East Falls Church to IAD with four stops - Tysons Westpark, Reston, Herndon Park and Ride, and IAD (although if the line looped back past the Udvar-Hazy center that would be even better). Running it through Tysons was a massive mistake, only made worse by the elevated design.

Posted by: Steven | January 25, 2008 9:34 AM

Marc, its very hard to have an intelligent conversation with you when you use the language you do. I have no choice but to respond in kind

All you bleeding heart liberals out there. This is payback for all of the highways you have axed over the past 25 years.

All you tree-hugging, bike toting, anti-progress, wanting to send us back to the stone age idiots are the reason we have a traffic crisis in the first place.

Posted by: Its about time | January 25, 2008 9:42 AM

While I would love to see mass transit of some sort out to Dulles and beyond, I think it's probably best that this plan gets tabled for awhile. There are just too many outstanding questions and problems. Bechtel, Metro in general, the ridiculous elevated rail in Tysons. It's too bad it came down to the wire like this before the feds really made their intentions clear, but this whole plan felt really forced.

To the first poster about the Big Dig: Yes, lots of aspects of the project are great, but don't overlook the fact that the new tunnel under the harbor is already leaking in many, many places and may have to be replaced much earlier than anticipated. Bechtel was a huge part of the problem up there.

Posted by: Jen in Reston | January 25, 2008 9:50 AM

Marc, transit should be about getting people where they need to go. Seeing rail as an "engine of growth" is worrisome. Maybe more offices could go into the Tyson area. But rail projects throughout the Washington area seem aimed at population growth. Any rail stop endangers houses, apartments, trees and small businesses nearby. Rezoning for high-rise "luxury" apts. follow. We don't need Bus Rapid Transit either, just more good transit buses, the kind WMATA has been buying.

Posted by: Bus Rider | January 25, 2008 9:52 AM

The problem was transit to Dulles was never really feasible. IIRC every study said that ridership to the airport alone would never support the project. Essentially the whole "remake Tysons" idea became the real goal of the line. Does anyone really think Phase II was going to ever get built on time?

This might be a good time for MD and VA to look at combining the Silver and Purple lines into some sort of circle line. You can then have a bus shuttle system out to Dulles.

Posted by: dgc | January 25, 2008 10:19 AM

Sorry Marc, but this time the "yokels" had it right, and I'm saying this as a resident of Tyson's. Dulles rail would have failed because it tried to do too many things, and would have ended up doing neither well: 1) It would not have reduced congestion in the Tyson's corridor b/c of the boom in population density that is coming to that area; and 2) It would have been terrible as a mode of transit to IAD b/c of the sheer number of stops it would have made trying to be a commuter line. The reason rail to airports works in other cities is because it is HIGH SPEED. The trains start from city centers or high-density suburbs and GO TO THE AIRPORT with few, if any, intermediate stops. The Dulles rail would made no fewer than four stops in Tyson's alone. That's absurd.

In other words, it can't be both an airport connector AND a commuter rail at the same time. If you want Metro to go to IAD, then build an extension that starts in East Falls and runs to IAD, with no stops in between (or maybe one in Tyson's Westpark). If you want mass transit to reduce congestion in the Tyson's area, a high-speed bus system with dedicated lanes would be more effective than any kind of rail line.

Posted by: Claudius | January 25, 2008 10:20 AM

Since the Feds want us to live in a state of misery due to transportation problems, they need to do the same. Shut down National Airport and make them deal with traffic getting to Dulles.

Posted by: Shut down National | January 25, 2008 10:23 AM

The road infrastructure around the NoVa region is easily behind development by about 20 years. The infrastructure should upgraded to where it needs to be, THEN worry about public transportation.

NoVA residents want to drive. Why is it expected that the residents would give up their right to drive and take public transportation? Why build public transportation when a large percentage of the population, especially in the affluent suburbs in NoVA, would not ride it?

It is ridiculous to compare public transportation in the Wash. Met. Area (WMA)with other metropolitan areas, when the road infrastructure in the WMA pales in comparison to the road infrastructure in those same metropolitan areas.

Most of the traffic problems in the region would be solved a handful of road projects and probably cost less than $5 bil. For example:

Building an outer beltway as was envisioned over 20 years ago. Most of the infrastructure is in place already (Rout 28/Fairfax County Parkway; ICC in MD).

Widening 66 inside the Beltway to 8 lanes.

Upgrading 7 and 123 to function more like highways.

Improving a handful of interchages along the Beltway including the I-66 and Route 50 interchanges.

Posted by: Roads | January 25, 2008 10:33 AM

This isn't about meeting the transportation needs of today, but laying the ground work for the skyscrapers and edge cities of tomorrow.

If anyone really thinks that the two story 'office park' buildings along the Toll Road are going to remain that way when a metro stop is next door, you need to take a reality pill. The new metro is going to add all sorts of new construction out there.

Posted by: Andrew | January 25, 2008 10:43 AM

All of these goofballs that think that a Metro line to Dulles would alleviate congestion are as silly as people like Mr. Fisher who try to turn this situation into a political arguement. Metro to Dulles is about as useful as Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere, at 20 times the cost. The bottom line is that airport passengers will not ride Metro to Dulles because Metro does not provide adequite long term parking. Commuters will not ride Metro from the proposed Silver Line because it will take longer and cost more money to ride the rails than to drive your car. If you think the last Metro fare increase was bad, I could only imagine what the fare from Dulles to Metro Center would cost if it were to come online ($8 perhaps or more each way), not only the increased costs that would have to be taken on by current Metro riders. We all know Metro is barely making ends meet now, so there's no reason for anyone to think that a fare increase would be necessary to maintain another 25 miles of track and another fleet of trains. Then there's the crush of additional riders that would flood an already strapped system. There's no doubt in my mind that Metro would be drooling to demand increased fares and parking to perform a complete system overhaul to be able to meet increased demand on the Orange Line corridor.

Posted by: Die Dulles Rail Die | January 25, 2008 10:45 AM


I know many are disappointed by yesterday's apparent decision, but we must not lose sight of the big picture -- the Dulles Corridor and indeed the entire Northern Virginia region desperately needs better mass transit service. As you point out, heavy rail is not the only option for the Dulles Corridor. Indeed, Boston recently opened a bus rapid transit system to serve Logan Airport, and this system was ranked the best transit airport connection in the country.

As the dust settles, perhaps we should engage in a discussion about how to develop a regional rapid transit network, not just a massive investment in a single corridor. We have growing and emerging activity centers that extend far beyond the current Metrorail service area and these areas currently are poorly served by transit. Building a regional rapid transit network would likely serve many more people than a single rail line in the Dulles Corridor and, with the right choice of technology, could be built at a lower cost and in much less time. Moreover, this system could serve as a focal point for transit-oriented development in many of these activity centers. This is precisely what is happening outside of Toronto, where a regional BRT system serves growing suburban areas, connects to the subway and commuter rail lines, and is attracting billions of dollars in new development, including a new town center with a pedestrian and BRT-only main street.

There are two bills in the Virginia General Assembly to study the development of a regional rapid transit network: one introduced by Delegate Watts and one introduced by Senator Colgan. Neither bill was introduced with the intention of serving as a replacement for rail to Dulles. However, it seems clear that we need to start thinkng about a Plan B, and these bills are an excellent place to start.

Posted by: Bill | January 25, 2008 10:48 AM

"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."

When mass transit got started in this country and Europe (cira 1880s) the public was told they had to provide right of ways and allow private sector use of eminent domain but after that the systems would pay for construction, capital and operating costs. Next (cira 1930s-60s) the public was told tax dollars (generally diverted from the gas tax) would be needed for construction but once up and running, the systems would be able to pay for their own capital maintance and operating expenses. Moving into the modern ere (1980s to about 2000) the tax payer has been asked to pay for construction, capital maintance and increasingly subsidize operating expenses. The bottom line is transit advocates ALWAYS (and knowingly) understate costs and over project revenues in order to get projects built and then come back to the gas tax or general revenue fund to subsidize their boondogles. As a driver and tax payer, I am willing to fund intitial construction of mass transit but the operating and normal capital maintance costs should be born by the riders. They recieve the primary benifit. Any road conjestion relief is purely secondary and adding road capaicty is almost always more cost effective than expanding mass transit.

So Metro already has a dedicated source of funding. Its called fares. You want the service, you pay the bill.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | January 25, 2008 10:52 AM

I have been a supporter of rail to Dulles since the beginning. Anyone who questions the effectiveness of rail need only look at the full Metro trains - they did not start out that way 15 years ago. Will it solve the traffic problems in Tysons - no. Will it get used - hell, yes.

That being said, I think the State of Virginia really botched this one. They rushed to give the project to the Airports Authority without really asking "could someone do this better?". They cut a still secret deal with a contractor generally regarded as incompetant at everything but creating change orders for their benefit - and one that is on the FTA's hit list. They completely pooh-poohed a huge groundswell of support for a tunnel through Tysons - saying "yes, that would be the best solution but we don't want to scare off the folks paying 20% of the freight". 20%!!!! Is anyone home at the State House??? Why do you try to build something that everyone agrees is a lesser long-term solution to placate the folks paying 20%. They folks paying 80% wanted a tunnel, but they were told by our Governor to pound sand.

As I said, this may be a good thing in the long run. Let's regroup, line up a replacement for the missing 20%, put a design competition together, select THE BEST solution, compete the work among QUALIFIED vendors, and build something that won't cause our grandkids to ask "what the hell were they thinking?".

Posted by: Maybe this is a good thing | January 25, 2008 11:09 AM

Woodbridge, that's not entirely correct.

Mass transit prior to WWII was usually a private enterprise in American cities, and a rather successful one at that. They operated in public ROW, to be sure, but they held their own, despite massive regulation imposed upon them.

What changed was when the feds decided to get involved in transportation funding on a large scale. By not only building the interstate highways but by building them with such generous grants (90% federal funding!), the government tipped the scales. There was no way that private operators could compete with such a massive subsidy towards automobile facilities and operations.

Mass transit projects have no choice but to line up for Federal funds.

Posted by: Alex B. | January 25, 2008 11:10 AM

I take Metro every day and definitely appreciate the virtues of mass transit. But the Dulles corridor should not be the first corridor considered for significant extension of Metro. The Dulles corridor, which has a huge right of way and fewer traffic concerns than any other DC-area corridor, is perfectly designed for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT would run just like trains run but would use much cheaper buses, making stops only at stations that could look, feel, and operate just like regular Metro stations. Any expansion of Metro in Virginia should instead continue beyond Vienna, tracking I-66, a corridor far more desperately in need of transit expansion.

Posted by: BC | January 25, 2008 11:20 AM

What I love is this jack*** Fisher never talks about how many people take the Washington Flyer Bus to Dulles. In my experience, it is about 30 each way. That is about 2000 people a day. The Washington Flyer would both be cheaper than the Silver Line, and it offers a dedicated space for storing bags. It also is faster than the proposed Silver Line since there are no stops between West Falls Church and the Airport.

Here's a hint: Take $1 million out of the $5 billion, and double the frequency of the Washington Flyer buses. You've basically solved the problem of rail-to Dulles.

And, please, running a single line down Route 7 is going to turn Tyson's into the Wilson Blvd corridor? Great real.

Fisher, what a moran.

Posted by: charlie | January 25, 2008 11:21 AM

It was wrong to base a system for purported regional benefit (VA, DC and MD) on the backs of the users of one road in Northern Virginia. To add insult to that, the politicians, 'planners' and other interested enthusiasts would not listen to what the people in the area wanted (tunnel, not an elevated train). This was a failure of certain area politicians in both parties and their paid-for cheerleaders. However, first things first, give the money back to the Toll Road users now, and take down the tolls!

Posted by: TOLLS?!?!?!? | January 25, 2008 11:22 AM

Alex B. -- Key word here is interstate. Mass transit was rarely required to compete with federally funded highways and generally didn't try to until the late 70s and 80s when some advocates started selling it as a way to connect suburbs with center cities. Which is where the systems began to collapse. Mass transit is good for very dense areas but breaks down rapidly as an intercity or suburb to city option. This is why the planners who want to run our lives from cradle to grave have started insisting we all move into high density developments like ants. The fact that many people may not like dense urban living means nothing to these people.

I like suburban living and am willing to pay for my choice. If someone else wants to live in the middle of an urban jungle or in rural wilderness, let them pay for their choices. Currently, the suburbs are being asked to pay for everyone.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | January 25, 2008 11:24 AM

Will somebody who's been in this area longer than I have explain to me why the Orange Line was terminated at Vienna instead of Tysons in the first place? When one looks at an actual map of the Orange Line, like the one on the front page of today's Post, one can see that the arc of the Orange Line through Falls Church would naturally lead to Tysons Corner. Instead, the line makes a sharp turn and heads to Vienna. What on earth were "they" thinking when they planned this out?

I've been in this area for "only" 15 years, and I suspect this part of the Metro system was planned before I moved here, so I would like to know the history before making my judgment on "tomorrow's history."

Posted by: Greenbelt Gal | January 25, 2008 11:26 AM

I'm all for trains running to Dulles, but this plan was a disaster and I'm glad it's dead. There are so many better options out there than making a further boondoggle out of Metro's existing problems. This needs to be done as part of a more comprehensive regional transportation plan and not just with this idea of establishing a beachhead at Dulles for the Metro. Has anyone thought about doing this as part of a plan to connect DCA and IAD? A line between the two could add much needed service to Reston, Tyson's, Falls Church, Arlington, Alexandria (let's face it Rte 7 is a parking lot that needs relief from transit) while still offering transfer connections to the Orange, Blue and Yellow lines, VRE, and Amtrak. Take the line one stop beyond DCA under the river and you could connect to the Green line and serve Nationals stadium. At Tyson's, you could also have a connection to the Purple Line (Yes, build it and don't end it at Wisconsin Ave. Keep going up to connect near Montgomery Mall and then cross the river.) which could connect all the way to Maryland and the Red Line. The bottom line is let's do some sort of mass transit to Dulles, but let's look at all options and do it right. The same money can be spent to benefit a lot more people and to actually help the region a lot more.

Posted by: mass transit fan | January 25, 2008 11:30 AM

Greenbelt Gal: Fairfax Co. botched their Metro planning in the 1960's/70's. They had a choice: either run the line down I-66 to Vienna or run it through Tysons. I believe the decision was political as one of the decision makers lived in Fairfax City, which is closer to the Vienna terminus.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 25, 2008 11:41 AM

Bad management is bad management whether it is some government agency trying to accomplish something, going hat in hand to another government agency to get the money, going to some overly large and perpetually money-lusty corporate entity to design and build whatever it is, or some ridiculous do-it-my-way deep pocketed government agency with the power to say no and give a specious reason why. A railroad to Dulles makes sense. The airport opened in 1962 way out in the otherwise empty Virginia countryside with a federally-owned road as the only way to get there. Along that road grew business after business, the Town of Reston, and lots of residential housing. Fairfax is a happenin' place. The Dulles tollroad parallels the Dulles Airport access road. Huge numbers of western FFX residents commute daily to and from jobs in and around The District. Getting their cars off the tollroad would be a blessing. The Big Dig was exceptionally complex in that it involved tunneling under existing buildings and getting permissions from private landowners. Running a rail line down an existing right-of-way is plainly not that complex an undertaking. There is always the option of paving the ROW to put in dedicated bus lanes and running buses a few minutes apart from Dulles to West Falls Church. But, the feds would probably squirm at anything that benefits Democrat-infested northern Virginia. If money is going to spent, I'd rather be putting in a nice rail line that would make the Dulles to D.C. trip ever so convenient than putting in an enormous (larger than the Pentagon!) Embassy in the middle of Baghdad. What delusional Republican thought that was money well spent?

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | January 25, 2008 11:44 AM

Woodbridge, there's nothing inherently federal about the interstate highways. The ones that were most damaging to urban rail mass transit were within cities and metropolitan areas. They shouldn't be treated any differently just because their signs have a nice red white and blue shield.

And the federal funding and advocacy for automotive travel (and complete disregard for rail travel) wasn't just limited to highway funding.

Also, planners aren't insisting that you live anywhere. You're free to do as you choose. However, when the market grows certain agglomerations (like a downtown, for example) planners have to accommodate that with infrastructure. That's the natural economic order of things - value goes up, density makes sense. The fact that people buy into it indicates that there's more than enough demand for it. Density doesn't just appear, it grows over time, and the transportation infrastructure needs to change with that growth.

Posted by: Alex B. | January 25, 2008 11:45 AM

"Any expansion of Metro in Virginia should instead continue beyond Vienna, tracking I-66, a corridor far more desperately in need of transit expansion."

How is I-66 more in need of transit expansion? They already have VRE service all the way out to Manassas! Besides, how many people work out along the I-66 corridor? The purpose of mass transit is not just to bring workers from the suburbs to DC, but also to bring workers from the inner suburbs out to the outer suburban office parks. What purpose would extending Metro to, say, Centreville have? Most likely it would just be the same people who already drive to Vienna who will drive to Centreville instead, which does nothing to alleviate congestion. At least the Dulles project would have brought decent transit to a new corridor, which could easily attract new transit riders.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 25, 2008 11:58 AM

I can't say I'm surprised at this development - Metro would probably have gotten the funding if the plan was better and there was more confidence in Metro's management. The reputation of Metro's management has been sinking like a stone in recent years.

As a frequent flier who uses Dulles often and lives in the District and works downtown, I would love a fast mass transit solution to getting to Dulles. But for me to use it, it would have to be more akin to the Heathrow Express, which takes you non-stop from Heathrow to center city London in about 15 minutes. I'm not going to spend an hour or more on the crowded subway from Foggy Bottom, stopping at a zillion stations to get there - ugh. For a business traveler it's just another hassle - more of a hassle than sitting in a car stuck in traffic on I66.

What we really need is a major project to allow high-speed heavy rail from Leesburg and other exurbs to access the District conveniently for commuters, similar to what is done in the Chicago area, for example. This is probably pie in the sky, sadly.

More practically, let's extend the metro to Tyson's, which is a no-brainer, and leave it at that - for now.

Posted by: JH | January 25, 2008 11:58 AM

Since the airports authority got shot down by the FTA, I think the airports authority should deny transit busses access to the Dulles Airport Access Highway. You know, all those Fairfax and Loudoun busses that take those bus-only ramps just east of Hunter Mill Road. Since the FTA isn't going to cooperate with MWAA, MWAA shouldn't cooperate with transit interests anymore, nor should it provide any benefit to whiney residents of that corridor who demand improvements and then fight to get them struck down.

The original intent of Metro was not to go to Tysons, eh? Well the original intent of the Airport Access Road was for Airport Traffic Only.

Posted by: I have an idea | January 25, 2008 12:06 PM

Alex B. -- You make some good points regarding government advocacy for roads, particularly between the 30s and the 80s.

Your point on planners and naturally occuring density are less compelling. Zoning started out mostly as local efforts to separate industrial development from residential areas (resulting all sorts of problems for low income housing but thats another discussion) but has the anti-sprawl school of planners moved into acendency in the 90s, they have tried (albeit unsuccessfully so far) to use zoning, transit and highway planning to impose a "New Urbanism" way of life on people. Just follow some of the debates on development in this area. At one extreme, Maryland tried to stop Virginia from drawing additional drinking water from the Potomac in an effort to force Va. to adopt more high density development. Md. did not object to the amount of water being taken but to the level of sprawl in Va. Fortunately, the courts told Md. to pound sand.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | January 25, 2008 12:08 PM

Although I generally support the notion of some form of rapid transit connecting Metro via Tysons to Dulles, I think a lot of commenters have hit on one very serious point: Metro's operating costs.

It's pretty clear that, even for the system we have now, Metro can't make ends meet. In the 20 years I've been in this city, I can say that Metro's sevice has declined markedly. Worse, because the prices from the outer suburbs are so high now (if you include Metro parking), the lowest cost option is once again driving into work (preferably with one other person if you don't have the time). That's the perverse situation we now find ourselves in.

Posted by: hmm | January 25, 2008 12:08 PM

No Purple Line, no Beltway widening. Both would destroy owner-occupied homes in MD, as well as thousands of trees. Strengthen Metrobus, and the other bus systems like the new Circulator. Run Express buses to Dulles, BWI and National, and elsewhere. Adjust weekend bus schedules to handle rush hours for riders going to malls, churches, etc. Stop assuming human population growth is good or inevitable. Transit-oriented development threatens small-scale, beautiful, pre-sprawl neighborhoods.

Posted by: Bus Rider | January 25, 2008 12:13 PM

"Will somebody who's been in this area longer than I have explain to me why the Orange Line was terminated at Vienna instead of Tysons in the first place? When one looks at an actual map of the Orange Line, like the one on the front page of today's Post, one can see that the arc of the Orange Line through Falls Church would naturally lead to Tysons Corner. Instead, the line makes a sharp turn and heads to Vienna. What on earth were 'they' thinking when they planned this out?"

The original plan was to run the Orange Line down I-66 all the way from Rosslyn on out to Vienna. Bear in mind that I-66 inside the Beltway opened in December 1982. The Orange Line opened to Ballston in 1979 and was extended to Vienna in 1986. Arlington County ponied up extra money to bury their Orange Line segment beneath the Wilson Boulevard corridor with the idea of remaking that portion of the county, and obviously they've succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. You probably don't remember back when Ballston was the last stop on the Orange Line. The high-rise buildings weren't there. The entire block around the Metro stop consisted of bus islands and the shopping mall (then called Parkington) was a lot smaller than it is now. The IHOP is one of the few things that hasn't changed much down there :-)

Fairfax County chose not to put up extra money to vary the route of the Metro line from I-66 and chose to go the route of treating the subway stops as destinations (hence all the parking garages at Vienna). They also defeated various development proposals around those stops (anyone recall the doomed Virginia Center project that would have put high-rise development around the Vienna stop?). The Orange Line doesn't take a "sharp turn" away from Tysons at West Falls Church--it just follows I-66, which was the original intent. In general it's fairly stupid to run a subway line down a highway because you guarantee that people will have to drive to the subway, but I suppose it's reasonable to note that the population density in the DC area is, for the most part, insufficient to support subway lines that don't have such parking accommodations. Consider that even New York hasn't built any major new subway connections in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx since they took over the LIRR Rockaway Branch in the 1950s.

Posted by: Rich | January 25, 2008 12:20 PM

"the anti-sprawl school of planners moved into acendency in the 90s, they have tried (albeit unsuccessfully so far) to use zoning, transit and highway planning to impose a "New Urbanism" way of life on people."

Counterpoint -- Arlington. The county has had very specific zoning on the books that focused growth around Metro lines. I do not believe that residents in these corridors feel that this was "imposed on them."

Posted by: WFY | January 25, 2008 12:32 PM

And the DC metro area continues to be the biggest mess ever. It's only going to get worse folks. Get out now.

Posted by: CBC | January 25, 2008 12:42 PM

De-fund Metro! More money for Blackwater! And Halliburton! And for killing Iraqi civilians! Soon, we will avenge Benazir! And the Duke lacrosse rapists! And Britney Spears' bald pate! Tom Brady's boot! Yeagh!

Posted by: Geen! | January 25, 2008 12:43 PM

Hey "It's about time" - that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Close-minded, judgemental, uncompromising people like you are the jock-itch of society.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 25, 2008 12:43 PM

Counterpoint -- Arlington. The county has had very specific zoning on the books that focused growth around Metro lines. I do not believe that residents in these corridors feel that this was "imposed on them."

WFY -- Actually an interesting counter point. I lived in Arlington before and during the development of the Balston corridor. Many low and moderate income renters, family businesses etc were displaced during the process. Meanwhile property owners pocketed mega profits and moved on. Also many areas of Arlington were starved of assets for years to push development into Wilson Blvd. I will concede the corridor is relatively lively but yes, it was imposed on people.

Finally, there is a great deal of NATURAL growth that transportation planners can and should support with mass transit. I have no objection to this. I just do not like the efforts to force high density growth where there is little need or desire.

BTW, the main problem in the current situation is the attempt to solve two separate problems with one solution. Natural high density growth between Tysons and Reston needs some support from mass transit. Dullus needs a highspeed link to downtown. Use metro for one and highspeed rail for the other. Just don't ask me to pay for either.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | January 25, 2008 1:16 PM


Most of us would love to see dedicated funding for WMATA. But there is a problem: Republican Senator Tom Coburn (OK) has put a hold on the bill.

Coburn believes that every spending bill/measure should have an offset. Not a bad idea, generally. But in this instance his insistence on the principle is jeopardizing a system that many federal government employees rely on -- including some in Coburn's own office, I presume.

Posted by: Melissa | January 25, 2008 1:19 PM

Maybe I missed something, but aren't we shelling out an extra 25 cents per tollbooth on the Toll Road to pay for rail to Dulles? If the project is dead, where's all that money going to go?

Posted by: Wondering | January 25, 2008 1:22 PM

This project has been mismanaged from day one and now that the feds have pulled their money from the pit, it must be a political ploy? Come on. Common sense has said all along it was destined to fail. It cost millions of dollars just to make the wrong call on keeping the Tysons line above ground. It costs millions more to decide where to put each station, and then more for any other decision. Now, the government calls Virginia, Metro, et al on their incompetence and it must be politics at hand. I don't think so.

Posted by: Dave in Annandale | January 25, 2008 1:26 PM

Please roll back the Access Road tolls, there is no need to tax the people of western Fairfax, Loudoun County and beyond anymore. Come back with a plan, like the original plan, that runs down the middle of the access road and terminates at Dulles

Posted by: Tommy Toll | January 25, 2008 1:28 PM

There are no tolls on the Access Road.

Posted by: Rich | January 25, 2008 1:45 PM

The Dulles Rail Project died the same day Democrat Jim Webb went to the White House reception for the 110th Congress and decided it was a good opportunity to take a cheap shot and insult President Bush at what is normally a non partisan. I know how politics works and this was the day the project died. Democrat Webb holds the blame.

Posted by: Iknow | January 25, 2008 1:45 PM

I LOVE the idea of light rail instead -- it seems to make the most sense...
Unfortunately, that might be its problem.

Posted by: jrj | January 25, 2008 1:52 PM


You forgot to mention that most of the inside-the-beltway portion of I-66 was built on the right-of-way of the W&OD rail line. I'm sure the bike freaks would have preferred that to also become a bike trail.

So W&OD -- I-66 -- Orange line -- Silver line?

Posted by: charlie | January 25, 2008 1:54 PM

Why does Metro go to Vienna and not to Tysons? Because when Metro was built Tysons was not a business hub as it is now. As a matter of fact it was the middle of nowhere that only had car dealerships.

Why should we not build up along I66? Because VRE already services Manassas, and the I-95 corridor. (And judging by the frequent traffic reports, along with MARC it has a high rate of failure). Moreover, servicing the I-66 corridor will only serve to move commuters to DC, whereas Tysons/Reston will not be served, though they are major destinations of commuters. The traffic patterns have changed.

Why shouldn't we widen the roads already here? Because 66 was 2 lanes not too long ago. It has been widened, but that is a dead-end solution. Routes 7&123 are surrounded by commercial and residential areas whose owners will become extremely wealthy. As for it effectiveness ... see comment on I-66.

What should Virginia do? Start the construction anyway. It will be many years before the lines reach IAD. That allows considerable time for the feds to adjust their thinking. But it also provides the opportunity to build UNDER ground in Tyson's, and above ground past Tysons. The 'under' idea was killed because it would cause delays that would jeopardize federal funding.

Also, in the meantime, perhaps Sen. Warner and Congressmen Davis & Wolf (good Republicans all) can use their influence with the Administration to shift the funds away from the bridge and ferry service to nowhere (in Alaska) over to a populated area here in Virginia.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | January 25, 2008 2:02 PM

It seems Va is having to face serious fiscal reality on the Dulles Rail project. While that is hard to take, I'm sure, when is MD going to face fiscal reality and cancel the $2,400,000,000 ICC toll road? Fiscal responsibility knows no bounds...if the math does not add up in Va, it doesn't add up in MD.

Posted by: Donny | January 25, 2008 2:04 PM

One of FTA's findings was that the Airport Authority did not do a sufficient alternatives analysis between making enhancements to the already existing bus system and building out an extension of METRO. Another is that while we currently have a proposed scope, the airport authority has yet to finalize that scope.

The two are related. An alternatives analysis helps to validate, clarify or disprove the assumptions we make about an investment. For instance, everyone is assuming that building a dedicated rail line to Dulles will help move suburbanites more easily to the city and low income workers more easily to job sites along the I-66 corridor. But where do the people live? They would probably have to drive to the stations they would take. So we have a car to train scenario. Does everyone driving to additional METRO stations really relieve congestion? Or does it just relocate the congestion?

I won't even address the nightmare of running three METRO lines between Rosslyn and Stadium/Armory.

Posted by: mdreader | January 25, 2008 2:24 PM

OK I'm no expert- but I've researched the topic for several different reports related to dedicated funding of mass transit systems and expansion of existing transit systems. For some people that are actually interested in learning more about the problems facing metro- there is an excellent book by Zachary Schrag: The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. It does an excellent job of discussing funding issues (see dedicated funding problems) and other alternatives to Metro that are being considered now (increase the size of highways, etc) and explains why those really aren't reasonable alternatives to Metro.

Posted by: Metro expert | January 25, 2008 2:58 PM

AMviennaVA- you hit it dead on. People don't realize that DC is not the center of the economy now as it was when Metro was built. The point of the rail isn't to move people into DC- anybody that thinks that should lose their right to post. The point of the rail would be to move people to Tyson's and Reston which have become economic hubs (A 30-40 year examination of GIS regional maps of economic activity will actually show you that the exact center of said activity has moved and is now right in the middle of Tysons).

Posted by: Patrick | January 25, 2008 3:03 PM

I asked Dr. Schrag what he thought about all of this on my blog:

Posted by: WFY | January 25, 2008 3:30 PM

Was going to post to greenbelt gal among others wanting to know why things are the way they are now:

The Great Society Subway, an extremely interesting book about the design layout and compromises.

Posted by: Aaron | January 25, 2008 4:16 PM

Greed killed the current plan for rail to Dulles.

As planned, there were NINE Metro stops between Dulles and West Falls Church. Anyone who's taken Metro knows that you could drive or take a bus the same distance during rush hour in less time that it would take Metro to make all those stops. The problem with the current plan is that there were FOUR stops planned for Tysons Corner. The reason given for so many stops in Tysons is that the stops should be within walking distance of employment and shopping centers. Face it, Tysons is NOT Ballston (where there is an existing system of sidewalks and narrower rights of way).

Tysons building owners and planners insist that without a high density of stations, Dulles rail will be underutilized. Compare how Tysons Corner is situated to other major DC suburban cities successfully served by Metro like Falls Church, Rockville, Silver Spring, Springfield, and Alexandria. At each of these other locations, Metro situated one maybe two stations in the right of way of nearby (<1/2 mile) highways and railroads to reduce cost. This is a DULLES rail line not Tysons. Sure many Loudoun County commuters will get off in Tysons but most will have destinations other than Tysons Corner.

In part due to the projected high cost of building four stations within Tysons Corner, the first phase of the Dulles Rail would have only reached Wiehle Ave. Who will that serve? Not Dulles, Herndon or farther out for sure. Who is going to drive, and park at the Wiehle station when you could go on to the new garage at West Falls Church and beat the slow Tysons train into town? Instead consider that two (or one) stations located at grade within the Dulles access road median would cost at least half of the currently proposed elevated and tunneled stations in Tysons. That's construction money that could extend the first phase of Dulles rail from Wiehle to the existing Herndon/Monroe bus transit station. Consequently serving a much greater potential population of commuters.

Western Fairfax and Loudoun County commuters are already paying more in tolls for future Dulles rail. Four metro stations in Tysons Corner will mostly serve to line the pockets of Tysons Corner property owners (through increased property values). Meanwhile, Loudoun commuters will be left holding proper change for tolls and parking instead of farecards. Reduce the frequency and expense of Metro stops planned for Tyson Corner and rail will serve Dulles commuters sooner.

Posted by: Loudoun Geographer | January 25, 2008 4:34 PM

"a handful of the world's most important airports not to have any rapid transit service"

Notably, a handful that includes New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Denver, etc. Just sayin'.

Posted by: Tom T. | January 25, 2008 6:16 PM

Marc Fisher's comments about the Big Dig are way off. While very expensive, the tunnel is a huge improvement that serves the citzens well. Losing this project is a big loss to every traveling person in the area. Current fuel costs and future auto related taxes imposed on drivers will make this project cheap in comparison.

Posted by: Robert_Tenleytown | January 25, 2008 9:25 PM

In my mind, it seems that too much of Fairfax County's attention has been turned toward Tysons Corner as its golden goose. It's total backwards engineering: bring rail down through the "economic hub" under the false pretense of Rail to Dulles...there are quite a few very wealthy developers who signed on for this plan because they knew it would line their pocketbooks even more if the rail line actually got built.

The problem is that Fairfax County, though its zoning tries very hard to be sound and to regulate too-rapid growth, has simply failed Tysons Corner by not realigning the road system there before now. There's a tentative plan right now to get rid of the frustrating loops, service roads and dead-ends that funnel all traffic to Route 7, thereby creating the traffic problems Tysons now suffers.

Once they get that road system in place, buses will work much more efficiently, people will want to live there because they can walk to their destinations -- Tysons Corner, as it is now and as it would be once rail is finished -- is utterly hostile to pedestrians.

On the other hand, look to the south: Fairfax does have a forgotten Metro hub otherwise known as Franconia-Springfield.

The mall there and surrounding commercial area is practically begging for a boom, is served by not only Metro but VRE as well, has a decent, sensible road system that keeps traffic flowing better than most areas of the county, and has the eye of the Army at the moment with jobs coming to Fort Belvoir. Other federal agencies will probably also move large quantities of workers there, and the area only has room to grow, both upwards and outwards.

If the county really wants rail to Dulles, it should forget about trying to squeeze four ridiculous stations through Tysons Corner and just go with the plan that ran the rail line down the median of the toll road -- as it was always intended to. Rail to the airport should be just that.

Why doesn't Fairfax put more of its time and resources into encouraging development in and around Springfield? It's got the infrastructure, it's got capacity, it's got a lot of potential. It might be an overstatement, but Springfield could easily support three times the amount of high-density, mixed-use development than Tysons currently has. AND still have the benefit of a good road network, good bus service, pathways and sidewalks, all with the side benefit of two kinds of rail service.

Ah, probably it's because West*Group doesn't stand to benefit from the county's attention there.

Posted by: Knows Too Much About Rail to Dulles | January 27, 2008 8:46 PM

King Connolly and SAIC aren't based out of Springfield

Posted by: simple answer | January 28, 2008 10:23 AM

Rich wrote: "The original plan was to run the Orange Line down I-66 all the way from Rosslyn on out to Vienna. Bear in mind that I-66 inside the Beltway opened in December 1982."

CORRECTION: I-66 opened in NOVEMBER 1979, about three weeks before the Orange Line from Courthouse to Ballston opened. The original plans also includes an eventual extension from Vienna to Burke, should Fairfax County and the Commonwealth of Virginia elect to exercise that option.

Loudoun Geographer wrote: "Greed killed the current plan for rail to Dulles."

Absolutely CORRECT. The minute Gerry Connolly, in tandem with The West Group and Tysons businessowners, announced that Metro would be diverted though Tysons from the original plan to run it parallel to the Dulles Access Road, I looked at my spouse and said, "That's it, they just lost the Feds." Why? Because the USG won't pay for something it didn't agree to when the original plan was drawn up.

Handing Bechtel a no-bid contract didn't help matters, either.

In short, they got greedy. They got STUPID.

AMviennava wrote: "Why does Metro go to Vienna and not to Tysons? Because when Metro was built Tysons was not a business hub as it is now. As a matter of fact it was the middle of nowhere that only had car dealerships."

Partly true. There were some office buildings in Westpark, and The Mitre Corporation was already there.

So was a meat locker, Schmidt's Esso, Tysons Corner Mall - and lots of farms.

Posted by: NativeNorthernVirginian | January 29, 2008 3:41 PM

I think that the metro to Dulles needs to be built. We can start with the tracks and one train which just goes back and forth to the closest stops and always add trains with demand. But people will use it. I read above that the costs will outweigh driving and parking. The truth is most people flying into Dulles travel via business, and often one day trips. They would only need to park for one day, we are not talking about 3 week vacation trips. Furthermore, we do not know what the gas prices could be like to make that prediction. And one reason that public transportation is so great is it is not about gas, you can save on gas, a car if you live close enough, insurance, taxes and you can utilize that time to do other things besides drive. For the 6 figure executive that lives in the affluent NOVA area, 2 hours of time spent making deals, writing up proposals, etc. could be well worth it each day. Additionally, kids traveling for school and young professionals traveling for work, NOVA is affluent, but a lot of people move out here because there are great schools and it is more affordable than anything else in Fairfax or Montgomery county. So, it is very unwise to think that everyone near Dulles airport has money.. and if they do "have money" it is because they moved further out to save that money, have a bigger nicer home, etc. BOTTOM LINE: it may need some rethinking but the Rail needs to be in place.

Posted by: LORIN | February 21, 2008 3:52 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company