Kaine is upset that the Federal Transit
Administration turned down funding for
Tysons-Dulles heavy rail. But the project had more
red flags than a bull-fighting ring.
Dulles Rail line, a proposed 11.6-mile Metrorail
extension in the Dulles Corridor from the
existing West Falls Church Metrorail station
through Tysons Corner to Reston at
Wiehle Avenue, has become the subject of intense
controversy. In a January 24 letter, FTA
Administrator James Simpson notified Virginia
Governor Tim Kaine that the Dulles Rail project in
its current form would receive an overall New
Starts rating of "Medium-Low," which
would render it ineligible to advance into Final
Design and receive federal assistance of up to
$1.5 billion (a $900 million New Starts grant,
plus a $375 million TIFIA loan and a $200 million
line of credit to be used if needed).
the project’s low cost-effectiveness, the letter
also questioned the soundness of the capital
financial plan and the management arrangements
under which the project would be implemented.
"I have serious concerns whether it would be
appropriate to continue further investment of
federal New Starts funds in this project,"
Simpson’s letter concluded.
project’s convoluted history no doubt
contributed to Mr. Simpson’s skepticism. In
November 2002, the region adopted the Metrorail
extension in the Dulles Airport Corridor as the
"locally preferred alternative." In June
2004, FTA approved Virginia's request to
initiate preliminary engineering of the first
phase of the rail line (to Reston). Preliminary
engineering was completed in the Spring of 2007.
In March 2007, the Commonwealth of Virginia
accepted a proposal from the Metropolitan
Washington Airports Authority to assume
responsibility for construction of the project and
to complete the rail line (to Dulles Airport)
using toll road revenues from the Dulles Toll Road
to finance the project.
transfer of the project and the toll road to the
Airports Authority has begun. In the meantime the
cost estimate for Phase I rose from $1.52 billion
in December 2004 to $2.4-2.7 billion in March
the years, a succession of FTA Administrators and
Acting Administrators has monitored progress of
the Dulles Corridor planning process and has given
incremental approvals to advance the rail project
through its successive stages. Concerns about the
viability of the project began to surface last
year. In its FY 2008 New Starts Report to Congress
released in February 2007, FTA rated the project
"medium-low" for cost-effectiveness.
should have been a red flag to the project
sponsors. Under FTA’s New Starts evaluation
guidance, a rating of at least "medium"
for cost-effectiveness is necessary to move a
project into final design and recommend it for
July 2007 report by the Inspector General’s
Office ran up another red flag. The report
observed that the project has experienced
substantial growth in estimated costs and large
schedule slippages — clear risk indicators that
merited FTA’s close monitoring, the report
warned. Specifically, the Inspector General
recommended that FTA exercise "extra
vigilance" in assessing the risks posed by
the Airport Authority (MWAA) takeover of the
the report: "The Boston Central Artery/Tunnel
Project (ed note: commonly known as the
"Big Dig") which experienced massive
cost overruns and schedule delays, presents many
lessons learned regarding the project sponsor’s
ineffective oversight. These lessons are relevant
in light of the MWAA’s lack of experience in
managing a mass transit project."
letter seemed to cause genuine consternation among
local and state officials and the project’s
private boosters. In a reply to Secretary Mary
Peters, Gov. Kaine noted, "In the last ten
years there have been numerous decision points
whereby FTA has signaled approval of the
project’s ongoing progress." The letter
listed 19 separate occasions since 1999 when FTA
signaled its concurrence with the project
the governor, "One year ago, we were told
that cost was the sole remaining issue to resolve.
With FTA’s guidance, we took steps to reduce
cost and were then given clear communication that
we had hit the target. To find out on January 24
that the cost issue was once again challenged, and
that a whole series of additional issues stood as
fatal roadblocks to federal partnership, was
as FTA’s Guidelines for New Starts Evaluation
and Rating Process state: "...Project
evaluation and rating is an on-going process. As
New Starts projects proceed through the project
development process, information concerning costs,
benefits, and impacts is refined and the ratings
may be updated to reflect new information."
assume that Administrator Simpson’s
decision was based on information developed during
the last 12 months, after he had given the
positive sign mentioned by the governor.
Specifically, Simpson could not ignore the July
2007 warnings from the Department’s own
Inspector General. Whether the misunderstanding
could have been avoided had Simpson’s
predecessors flagged their concerns earlier, we
can only speculate.
speaking, applicants try to resolve any potential
problems during preliminary engineering. Once that
phase has been successfully completed, the project
is allowed to proceed into Final Design. The
Dulles Rail sponsors may have assumed that their
project would glide along that customary path.
However, there were enough red flags raised during
the last 12 months to put the project sponsors on
notice that not all problems had been resolved and
that an automatic advance into Final Design could
not be taken for granted.
his letter, Gov. Kaine offered to make additional
adjustments — "small or large" -- to
alleviate FTA’s concerns. A February 1 letter
from James Bennet, CEO of the Airports Authority
attempts to answer many of these concerns.
advice to both parties is to take this opportunity
to undertake a more fundamental reassessment.
Specifically, the parties should consider staging
the project over a longer period of time. The
initial "operable segment" would
terminate at Tysons Corner. The initial rail
segment would include a tunnel section in the
Tysons Corner area, as urged by many local
officials, property owners and citizen groups.
From Tysons Corner, travelers would be offered
frequent express bus service to Dulles Airport on
a dedicated roadway, designed for eventual
retrofit to rail.
the intermediate period, Bus Rapid Transit, using
a busway equipped with off-line stations, could
provide a level of service similar to that of rail
transit at a fraction of the $5 billion cost of
the full rail alternative. Eventually, after
ridership in the corridor reached a high enough
level, the intermediate stage busway would be
converted to a rail line.
party should be wedded to any particular
approach" in seeking to move the project
forward, Governor Kaine said in his letter. A
staged bus-rail project could be the creative
solution the governor is looking for.
February 11, 2008