Rail to Dulles: A Riddle Wrapped Inside an Enigma

There has been considerable discussion on this blog on the viability of the $4 billion estimate for building the Rail to Dulles project. The issue became all the more urgent, to my mind, when private-sector proposals to build a new U.S. 460 between Suffolk and Petersburg came in hundreds of millions of dollars higher than anticipated. Given rampant inflation in the construction sector, could a similar fate be in store for Rail to Dulles, a lynchpin of Kaine administration plans to save Northern Virginia from traffic congestion hell?

We’ll find out more late this winter or early spring when the Bechtel/WGI consortium delivers its final, definitive estimate for Phase One before entering into contract negotiations to build the project. Don’t be surprised if the estimate, which stood at $1.8 billion in 2005 and now officially stands at $2.1 billion, bumps up another notch — a notch that conceivably could amount to another $200 million.

And that’s just Phase One. How much will Phase Two cost a decade or so out? Such an estimate, which must factor in the geopolitical impact of China’s economic transformation on steel prices and of jihadism on Middle Eastern oil supplies, is unknowable.

Peter Galuszka discusses the imponderables in his latest Road to Ruin piece, “A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma.” He raises several points that, in my humble opinion, are insufficiently appreciated in the Rail to Dulles debate:

  1. What happens if inflation pushes up the price of Phase One much beyond $2.1 billion? Where does the money come from? Even now, the state funding formula is about $125 million short. If inflation adds another $250 million to the price tag, the state then needs to find $375 million. That’s real money. Where does it come from?
  2. What will the Federal Transit Authority reaction be to a higher price tag? The current funding formula for Phase One anticipates receiving $900 million from the feds. Without it, the project is dead. But the FTA cost-benefit analysis apparently considers the project so marginal that adding $200 million to tunnel underneath Tysons Corner rather than run the rail line above-ground could have scuttled the funding. What if inflation adds $200 million to the cost of the project?
  3. Who will absorb the risk if things go wrong? Bechtel-WGI can agree to build the project at almost any price you name — if someone else absorbs the risk of cost overruns. If the Kaine administration is desperate to close a deal for political reasons — and I’m not singling out the Kaine adminstration, what I’m saying applies to any administration — they can bury the risks in the fine print and pray that nothing comes back to bite them.

It strikes me that there’s a very good chance that the Rail to Dulles project could disintegrate. Let us hope that the Kaine administration is considering alternatives for improving mobility in the Rail-to-Dulles corridor. If the option is to build Rail-to-Dulles at any cost or… nothing at all… Virginians may wish they had another choice.

Here’s one possibility: Use time-of-day congestion pricing on the Dulles Toll Road to maximize throughput and use surplus funds to fund Bus Rapid Transit. It would help to have the numbers in hand in the event that Rail to Dulles falls apart.

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8 responses to “Rail to Dulles: A Riddle Wrapped Inside an Enigma”

  1. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Peter – job well done. I think that your story raises the tough questions about rail to Dulles, through Tysons, that simply are not being covered by the MSM. I’ve typed long and hard on this subject. I don’t have all the answers, but the cost overrun issues scare the pants off me (and quite a few others.)

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Agree. good job.

    TMT – I thought you might be interested in the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP)


    excellent website for “following the money”

    the “connection” for this thread is the financial affairs of public officials who are strong supporters of growth and development including transportation facilities – whether they be road or rail…

    so just for giggles and grins.. I pulled up your favorite guy:

    Connolly for Chairman

    Industries: Sector Amount
    Real Estate/Construction $163,185 <-----
    Political $117,287
    Business – Retail, Services $38,519

    note this amount of money … rivals many elected in the Va GA.

    for instance, compare to Chichester:

    Industries:Sector Amount
    Health Care $48,341
    Finance, Insurance $23,205
    Law $16,819
    Business – Retail, Services $13,350
    Energy, Natural Resources $12,404
    Real Estate/Construction $9,950 <-----
    (others listed… but deleted here)

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: 460 … public funds in addition to tolls needed.

    Indiana’s toll roads bring in so much additional money that they’re spending it on other new roads.

    Why is Indiana taking in this much extra money and VDOT is saying… the opposite in Virginia?

    In fact.. as far as I can tell.. Virginia is the ONLY state that is getting into TOLL roads that has said we’ll need public money.

    I smell a rat.

  4. Just for kicks, does anyone know if a more traditional light rail system (one using steel track with diesel powered locomotives) is less expensive than a Metro-style system?

    The reason I ask is because they have come a long way in developing clean diesel technology….if you could save $125 million or so with this type of technology and rail line, would it be worth it?

  5. E M Risse Avatar

    Gold h20:

    It sounds like you are talking about “commuter rail” not “light rail.”

    Whatever, the numbers to be concerned about are the passenger per station per hour.

    Commuter rail, light rail, heavy rail (METRO), MAGLEV, MonoRail, PRT nor any other known technology will provide mobility and access for Greater Tysons Corner, Greater Reston / Herndon, Dulles and Eastern Loudoun without Fundamental Change in the station-area settlement patterns.

    With Fundamental Change a creative mix of the above modes could provide mobility and access.


  6. So, as far as what is being proposed, do we need more or fewer stations in order to achieve proper station-area settlement patterns?

  7. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry hit the nail on the head when he pointed out the size and source of contributions made to Gerry Connolly. Rail to Tysons is about rezoning Tysons, not transportation. This is about enabling a few, connected campaign contributors to reap windfalls, as the taxpayers of Fairfax County are left saddled with the costs of an overly expensive rail line that does not help reduce traffic congestion, but will bring more cars to Tysons; and building infrastructure to support the development.

    If you look at rail from a transportation prospective, you will only be fooling yourself.

  8. TMT is right. And So is Gold-H2O. What if we sat down with a blank piece of paper and $2.1 billion dollars and we asked the question, what is the best (Metro) use of this money?

    We have been so wrapped up in rail to Tyson’s we haven’t considered other alternatives, that I know of.

    I think we would be better off to start at King Street, go out Duke Street, though Landmark to Annandale, then down Columbia Pike to Skyline, and back through Bailley’s crossroads to Ballston.

    Then you would have some stations that could serve places that are already built up and some that need to be rebuilt.

    What do you think, EMR?

    There could be other alternatives. Georgetown/Wisconsin Ave. clearly needs a couple of stations.

    Rail to Dulles could go out the toll road median, then we could serve Tysons/Vienna via a spur or light rail.

    Extending the Orange line to Centerville makes more sense than the current plan.

    Why si this the only fig on the table?

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