- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

The panel tasked with studying the extension of Metro to Washington Dulles International Airport through Tysons Corner said yesterday that an underground rail option is a better fit for the growing area, and that it would spur greater long-term economic growth than an aboveground system.

“While it is clear that the aerial option can be done cheaper and faster, it is also clear from many different perspectives that the tunnel option would allow for a more integrated development of Tysons Corner,” said Robert S. O’Neil, chairman of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Dulles Metrorail Tunnel Review Panel. “It is reasonable to conclude that our findings suggest strong consideration of the tunnel alternative.”

Thanks to new tunneling technology, the underground rail would not increase the project cost excessively, and could last twice as long as an aboveground system, Mr. O’Neil said at a press conference where he released the findings of the panel’s evaluation of engineering options for the Tysons Corner segment of the proposed Metrorail extension.

The panel estimates that it would cost $2.25 billion to extend aboveground Metrorail service 11 miles from East Falls Church to the proposed Wiehle Avenue station in Reston.

If a 4.2-mile stretch of that rail is built under Tysons Corner, the price edges to $2.5 billion, and the project could be delayed for about a year, Mr. O’Neil said.

State-of-the-art boring machines can dig tunnels that are 40 feet or more in diameter, the panel said in its findings.

A large-bore tunnel would stack rail lines on top of each other in a single tube.

“In terms of the Metro system here, this is encompassing into this one tunnel what normally would be put into two,” said Joan Buhrman, a spokeswoman for ASCE.

The tunnel would have a life span of about 120 years, lead to less traffic during construction and allow the land above the tunnel to be open to development, Mr. O’Neil said.

The aboveground plan would last 60 years, create “serious negative traffic” on Routes 7 and 123 and Interstate 495 and require extensive utility relocation along Route 7, the panel’s report states.

“One of the big selling points of this is they will not have the years of disruption to Route 7 and Route 123, which as you know they cannot afford any more disruption on those roads,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Financial and environmental concerns remain.

In a letter last week, Reps. Frank R. Wolf and Thomas M. Davis III, both Virginia Republicans, warned Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, that building a tunnel could delay the project two years because of necessary environmental permitting and that the added cost of a tunnel could jeopardize $900 million in federal funding.

“The cost estimates for a tunnel, which we have heard to be in excess of $200 million, plus the additional cost of delaying the project quickly add up,” the congressmen stated in the letter. “We have been repeatedly told by the Federal Transit Administration that, according to federal regulations, if a transit project exceeds federal cost-benefit standards, the project is ineligible for federal funding regardless of whether a local, state or private entity may be willing to pay the cost difference.”

Yesterday, the FTA said it must review the proposal carefully to ensure it meets all necessary criteria and conditions to qualify for federal funding.

“In addition, it is important to note that should the Commonwealth choose to make significant changes to its original plan, including building a tunnel, the FTA will need to make new, additional examinations on environmental, budget and schedule impacts,” the office said. “As stewards of the taxpayer’s dollars, we will continue to maintain careful oversight of this project and work closely with the Commonwealth as it moves through the federal review process.”

Mr. O’Neil said he thinks the project will not have to go through another major environmental study because the underground project is almost identical in scope to the previously approved aboveground plan.

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