- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

During an open hearing in March on the design of the first phase of the Dulles Metro extension project, residents made it clear that they felt the death knell for the tunnel through Tysons Corner had been sounded prematurely. Sensing support for the tunnel, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors reopened the debate at the end of April with a resolution calling for another look at the costs of building underground. Despite concerns of pedestrian access and general aesthetic impact, however, the Metro will function just as well if it is built above ground as if it were built below.

The ability of the rail to allay traffic congestion will not be augmented by putting it in a tunnel. Building underground will not necessarily lessen the above ground disruption — witness Boston’s big dig debacle. And at what is estimated to be an increase of $500 million to $800 million above the current $2 billion projection for first phase of the project, the cost is prohibitive.

Metro Interim General Manager Dan Tangherlini said he was “cheered by the actions of the Fairfax County board” to reconsider the tunnel option in order to “go forward with the right project.” Metro, which will operate and maintain the new rail, is providing technical advice to ensure the new track will function cohesively with the current system.

The transfer of leadership to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in March seemed to signal a go ahead. As one of the last major pieces to fall into place, the MWAA agreement assured supporters that the project was close to becoming a reality. The MWAA will use money raised from the Dulles toll road to fund the state’s share of the project — keeping that money in the corridor. County funding mechanisms had been established, and federal funding — $900 million for the entire $4 billion project — was authorized in the last transportation bill. Before talk of the tunnel re-emerged, the last hurdle for the project to receive federal funding was to secure a full funding grant agreement from the Federal Transit Administration, which applies a rigorous cost-effectiveness standard in its evaluation of the project. Complying with that standard was difficult even without a price increase of at least 25 percent; the additional cost may put FTA approval — and thus federal funding — all but entirely out of reach.

A Metro extension to Dulles is not a complete panacea for Northern Virginia’s serious traffic problems, but it will provide some much-needed relief. The Washington region is the third most congested in the country, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, which surprises neither commuters in Northern Virginia nor shoppers to Tyson’s Corner and travelers to Dulles airport.

The simple fact is, however, that Metro cannot serve outlying areas as thoroughly and efficiently as it does the District. Bringing Metro to Tysons, and eventually to Dulles, is a necessity. But it is a necessity that must be done as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

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