Koelemay's Kosmos

Doug Koelemay



Tunnel Vision


A shovel in the ground early in 2008 is the right answer for the Rail to Dulles project.


The benefits of a tunnel for Metrorail in Tysons Corner are real. So are the drawbacks. With federal funding still critical to the Dulles Corridor Rail Project, responsible public officials must make pragmatic decisions. Stay on track for $900 million from the Federal Transit Administration. Do not delay further. Do not jeopardize Metrorail through Tysons Corner to Dulles Airport. Put a shovel in the ground early in 2008.


Those are the straightforward conclusions by the Matthew Tucker, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, in reporting the results early in March of a professional review of studies submitted to justify a large bore tunnel in Tysons. The engineering and environmental discussions were submitted in January by Tysons Tunnel, Inc., a coalition of the McLean Chamber of Commerce, community leaders and interested citizens. With a catchy slogan, “It’s Not Over Until It’s Under,” advocates have been trying to put the tunnel option back on the table since 2006.


The tunnel visionaries have made their case fervently. They note that communities everywhere are working to put rail projects underground, rather than on elevated facilities, for lifecycle cost and aesthetic reasons. They point to Arlington as a great local example of how ensuing urban development can proceed without gross disruptions to existing businesses and commuters. They argue that Tysons workers, shoppers and residents will be able to move around a tunnel more easily than an aerial alignment.


Their efforts are only the latest blip on the extraordinarily long Rail-to-Dulles timeline. Generations will have been born, graduated and grown into responsible adults in the time that will have passed between the first exploration of the idea and its realization. The median of the Dulles Airport access road, for example, was designed to include rail from the time it opened 45 years ago. Basic decisions about the alignment and form for rail through Tysons Corner were made years ago, including the adoption of the Locally Preferred Alternative and Final Environmental Impact Statement in 2004 and a Federal Transit Administration amended record of decision in November 2006. The project goal is final design approval in June 2007 and what is called a Full Funding Grant Agreement with FTA before the year is out.


Therein lies the rub. New technologies emerge over a decade. Time itself encourages second thoughts, even second guessing. Yet any deviation from the final steps in an approval process that goes back 13 years is risky. The primary conclusion of the independent review team was that “there is a significant risk that the project cost of the Large Bore Tunnel would not meet the FTA’s Cost Effectiveness ratio criteria, which could compromise federal funding for the project.”


Director Tucker went further in a letter of Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer on March 7, noting that while a 3.4-mile tunnel through Tysons Corner was shown to be technically feasible in the submission, Tysons Tunnel, Inc. did not validate its own cost and schedule estimates. Because of federal and Metrorail requirements, validation could add another two, even three years to the process.


Other review elements cited tradeoffs in costs and benefits in both directions. Some real estate takings, construction and utility easements are the same regardless of whether a tunnel could replace elevated tracks. Pedestrians in a new transit-oriented Tysons will be challenged by either option without new road and street connections, bus connections and traffic calming measures that are not part of the rail project. Just as aerial transit has unique operating costs related to weather and operations, underground transit has unique costs related to escalators, ventilation, drainage, pumping and lighting requirements. What's more, tons of muck -- the excavated material -- has to be removed, processed, hauled and dumped.


The more than 206 million users of Metrorail in 2006 also could offer the observation that the 106-mile system across Northern Virginia, suburban Maryland and the District of Columbia already has more than half of its track miles above ground, including nine miles and six stations in aerial alignments. Although Metro proudly boasts that it has the longest escalator in the Western Hemisphere -- 508 feet long at the Red Line’s Wheaton, Md. -- it also concedes that some of its most vexing problems have been maintenance of its escalators.


Tunnel advocates clearly do not like the findings of the state review. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has raised other questions related to competition in bidding to keep project costs down. Virginia has just drawn a line in the sand to require its private-sector partners in the public-private venture to get final cost estimates in line and conclude negotiations with the new public partner, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, by April 5.


But the fractious parties have been careful not to poison the overwhelming public support for the Dulles Corridor Rail Project, including its four stations in Tysons Corner, the prevails whether rail is aligned above, along or under existing roadways. Just because tunnel advocates didn’t get the answer they wanted doesn’t mean the process is fixed or fatally flawed. Just because a $4 billion plus project generates serious disagreements and tough decisions doesn’t mean a community of interests will not drive it forward to a successful conclusion.


Still, Tucker reminds that the cost of the project is escalating at a rate of $4 million a month. As Yogi Berra might have put it: “It can’t be over unless we actually start."


-- March 21, 2007 
















Contact info


J. Douglas Koelemay

Managing Director

Qorvis Communications

8484 Westpark Drive

Suite 800

McLean, Virginia 22102

Phone: (703) 744-7800

Fax:    (703) 744-7994

Email:   dkoelemay@qorvis.com


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