“This Thing … You Can See from Pittsburgh”

A number of Fairfax County officials and residents have reacted with dismay to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s decision to run the Metro heavy rail extension through Tysons Corner on elevated tracks rather than underground.

Quotes Alec MacGillis with the Washington Post: “It’s sad. The last thing Tysons needs is another silly barrier, and that’s what it’s getting,” said Clark Tyler of McLean, chairman of a county task force drafting a new master plan for Tysons. “We’ve got the Beltway and Route 123 and Route 7, and now we’ll get this thing sticking up that you can see from Pittsburgh.”

Del. Thomas Rust, R-Fairfax, raised the possibility that Kaine might have gotten a different result if he’d delved into the tunnel issue earlier. “Some of us from months ago knew the federal funding issue was a huge unknown, and I am surprised [the governor’s office] did not get those answers much earlier. He may have gotten caught up in the moment. A lot of people were pushing it, and he may have just gotten caught up in it and thought, ‘We can work around this.’ “

That’s a dead end. Kaine has pursued the Rail-to-Dulles diligently. (I don’t agree with his decision to hand over the project to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, but his diligence cannot be faulted.) Arbitrary rules and restrictions are inherent when your financing scheme hinges upon support from the federal government.

Perhaps it is time to re-think the financing of the Rail-to-Dulles extension from scratch, this time paying for the project by increasing density around the planned Metro stops and extracting, through taxes, the resulting increase in property values. Cutting the federal government out of the picture also might eliminate various requirements — such as Davis-Bacon Act (no relation!) requiring the use of union construction labor — that drive up the project costs. Can any readers shed light on how federal regs might drive up the project costs?

Update: More negative reaction from Steve Eldridge with the Examiner.

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20 responses to ““This Thing … You Can See from Pittsburgh””

  1. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    So why don’t the landowners forego the federal money (which is not available for Phase II in any event) and build whatever type of rail line they want? A very reasonable question that a number of people have been asking for some time.

    They could build the underground line that they want or they could build a line that travels down the Toll Road median and does not go through Tysons Corner. One or two stations at the edge of Tysons could be built with appropriate connections to the urban area.

    I suspect that the first alternative does not make economic sense for the landowners. An underground line would be too expensive to build. But then, if that it is the case, why should ordinary taxpayers and Toll Road users be forced to build such a line? That’s what the FTA cost-benefit standard helps protect. The feds won’t fund a system that does not provide sufficient public benefits when considering the costs. The system is working as intended.

    I suspect that the second alternative makes the concept of TOD unworkable at many of the properties in Tysons. TOD is not walk a mile or take a shuttle bus to transit. We all need to keep in mind that the route selected (down 123 and up 7) just happens to run by the parcels of land owned by the largest landowners at Tysons. Running the Silver Line down the Toll Road median would not likely permit those owners to obtain new zoning. In other words, there would not be any financial reward for the biggest landowners with rail to Dulles.

    The Silver Line is about real estate and not about transportation. It is a means to an end — rezoning — but it depends on the availability of captive taxpayers and Toll Road drivers.

  2. The problem for paying for government activities through increased tax assessments on those it affect is that it sets a precedent: pretty soon we’ll be paying extra for anything the government does.

    That’s OK, but then you would also have to let it work the other way: when the government downzones you or performs other negative activities then they should pay you for the loss.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar

    TTM, your analysis of landowner tradeoffs financing Metro themselves could be right. But I suspect that they never took their thinking that far. Landowners negotiated a special taxing district with Fairfax County in which they will pay a small portion of the bill. Trouble with that district is that a lot of landowners, who will gain very little from the heavy rail project, wind up paying into it, while the landowners who would benefit the most pay only a modest share.

    My guess is that the landowners who would benefit the most from METRO thought they could finesse the project financing by hitting up Dulles Toll Road commuters, the federal government and other landowners. Why bother consider an alternative in which they would pay the full freight themselves? It is now time for them to go through that exercise.

  4. Toomanytaxes Avatar


    I think that your explanation is right on target.

    I also think that it’s time to drop the games. If they want Metro to enhance their real estate investments, they ought to pay for it or simply drop the idea. Then we need an honest look at what sorts of transportation improvements and payment plans make sense for Tysons Corner.

  5. Assuming the landowners were willing and able to pay for it themselves, how could they do it without eminent domain? Not everybody is going to get on the train, so government is going to have to be involved.

  6. Hitting up the toll road commuters is wrong, wrong, wrong. You can argue that this benefits ome more than others, but beyond that the benefits are dispersed, and so should be the costs.

    If you are going to hit up the toll road commuters specifically, then you ought to at least offer them a transfer to Metro if that is the end of their car trip.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    I came across this map that I thought may be of some interest.

    It can be found here, http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpz/tysonscorner/nofind/survey/tysonsfactsheetv7.pdf#search=%22%22tysons%20metro%22%22, on page 3.

    Now, call me crazy, but most of what is the commercial part of “Tyson’s Corner” is nothing more than a bunch of parking lots/garages. The idea that it is somehow going to become some sort of pedestrian friendly paradise is a joke.

    On this map you will notice the “great divide” as being the black line that runs diagonally down the page. That’s rt. 123.

    On the left of that line is the commercial part of Tyson’s corner. On the right is the residential part of Tyson’s Corner.

    Question: How do people get from the residential part of Tyson’s Corner to the commercial part of Tyson’s Corner where the stations will be located? Wouldn’t it make more sense to build at least one station on the residential side of rt. 123 to move commuters into the inner-core?

    As it is now, the metro stops are nothing more than a way to get shoppers to and from the Tyson’s Corner Malls.

    Oh, and notice where the line will cross the beltway….can’t wait to sit in thise traffic jams!

    Here’s another map showing the completed silver line, http://www.dullesmetro.com/pdfs/Route%20Map%20FINAL_6-06.pdf

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “The feds won’t fund a system that does not provide sufficient public benefits when considering the costs.”

    gee… I wonder how such a cost/benefit analysis would work with the Springield Interchange? 🙂

    …or …. let’s say.. ultimately.. the public at large comes to believe that this project will not work and is not a benefit to the region and it dies….

    what next? Back to business as usual? What are the realistic alternatives?

    this is one of those deals… where you lead, follow.. or get out of the way…

    either get in the game… or stand on the sidelines wringing hands….

    I strongly suspect the timer is ticking.. and a “ding” might be heard when the GA finishes it’s special session.

    In other words… if NoVa does not reach a consensus on how to move forward by the end of September.. they might just twist in the wind for a few years cuz if they themselves don’t know what they want.. how can the GA act on that?

  9. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry, There are sensible alternatives. One is to return the Metrorail extension to its original route — down the middle of the Dulles Toll Road. There could be stops at Tysons Corner, Reston, Herndon, Dulles and Loudoun County. From there, appropriate “sub-systems” could be constructed to move passengers around the locales. Or a BRT system could be built.

    Your confusion stems because you are looking at this from a transporation perspective. The Silver Line is not being proposed in order to improve transportation, but only to enable the rezoning of Tysons Corner. We need to drop that goal and return to transportation (moving people efficiently) as the goal.

    It’s not just disgruntled citizens that feel this way. There are a growing number of business leaders, including people in the real estate industry, that would like the goal to be advancing the public interest and not just that of West Group and a few other large landowners, including SAIC, the employer of BoS Chairman Gerry Connolly.

  10. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    I have posted Table 6.2-2 and provided a link to the full chapter on my new blog “A Dog with Five Legs.”

    It is pretty powerful and damning evidence that was prepared by the Commonwealth itself. Perhaps, I and the many others who have reviewed this table are wrong, but not likely. There just is no reduction in traffic congestion despite spending billions on the Silver Line.

    Why are we going to do this? Intuitive belief that it is a good thing to do is not sufficient in a world where we need traffic relief and have only limited resources.

    There may be a role for expanding Metrorail to Dulles, but not in this manner.

  11. Jim Bacon Avatar

    TTM, I can’t find your blog. Can you provide a link?

  12. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Jim, et al. Sorry, I should have included a link. http://toomanytaxes.blogspot.com/

    We’ll see how my blogging adventure goes.

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    TMT – “confusion stems because you are looking at this from a transporation perspective.”

    “The Silver Line is not being proposed in order to improve transportation, but only to enable the rezoning of Tysons Corner.”

    This is pretty damming… in terms of the motives of elected officials.. Congressmen, County-elected… et al.

    It would be the first time that someone claimed that if a transportation projects was built that it basically was being built to benefit developers.

    But this is sweet irony because most of the time it’s proposed new highways that enjoy that view.

    Remember the Western Transportation Corridor?

    How about developers who proposed to build new interchanges to help defray the costs?

    Where are the anti-Tyson folks on THAT issue?

    But going with your assessment of what the issue is really about… I have to say.. it sounds like you have a much more serious problem that a “transportation” problem because apparently folks believe that their elected leaders are not acting in the best interests of the region. As I said, that’s a pretty damming situation if true because it not just one bad guy.. it’s most of them… right up the ladder including Kaine…

    Is the prevailing view that all of these guys on the “take” from developers to approve Tysons?

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    TMT – re: http://toomanytaxes.blogspot.com/

    “The Commonwealth’s own projection indicates that spending at least $4 billion to build the Silver Line provides essentially no improvement in traffic congestion. The State’s employee explained this seemingly absurd result at a public meeting late last fall, in McLean, as being caused by all of the additional development that Fairfax County’s supervisors are likely to approve once the Silver Line is authorized for construction.”

    I don’t doubt the explanation provided but would ask if the same claim is not made with respect to new highways and/or expanding existing roads?

    In essence, isn’t the argument that if you provide a transportation improvement – whether it be roads or transit – that any potential benefit to congestion reduction will be offset by land-developers co-opting it for more development?

    I’ve read a few EIS’s in my time also and what VDOT claims on this issue is that development will happen anyhow and that while a new road might accelerate it – that it’s market demand for land-development that really is the underlying driver.

    And I’ll finish with a question. How would you feel if the State of Virginia/VDOT decided that if Loudoun was going to build 30,000 more homes that a new highway from Loudoun to NoVa would be built – how would you reconcile the idea that – that new highway would spur even more home-building.. actually encourage more home-building in Loudoun and actually result in even more congestion in NoVa?

  15. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry – I do not disagree on the need to apply similar standards for road building. We need to make transportation funding decisions for all infrastructure based on engineering and economic data.

    Both roads and rails need to be about transportation and not whose speculative investment in land or buildings can we enhance.

  16. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    TMT: “funding decisions for all infrastructure based on engineering and economic data.”

    rather than cost effectiveness or performance-based criteria? The two criteria espoused seem to be pretty vague… much like a bogus VDOT study tilted to show favorable supporting data for a questionable road…

    can you articulate more.. on this.. because these criteria sound very different from what is currently being promoted and, in fact, sound a lot like business as usual.

    re: “Both roads and rails need to be about transportation and not whose speculative investment in land or buildings can we enhance.”

    then.. how to assure a process that forces a focus on utility and cost-effectiveness that would clearly expose other motivations…. ???

    or to cut to the chase… if we are not happy with our current elected and high-level officials methods of deciding the merits of a transit (or a road) project… what reforms/changes would steer us towards a better process not only for making better decisions.. but decisions the public trusts?

    The way I see it.. if we don’t have standard and uniform processes used with respect to all projects, .. then each specific project.. will have supporters and opposition.. based on their own subjective criteria…which will vary according to what kind of project and where it might be located.

    Isn’t this essentially arguing to continue with the status-quo with regard to transportation decision-making?

  17. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry – I don’t think that I’m disagreeing with you, just using different words. I believe that we need to use objective criteria that apply for all proposed projects.

    I can see the value of improving a dangerous intersection where a number of fatal accidents have taken place, for example. I presume that these data are available.

    Similarly, we should look at cost-effectiveness for projects.

  18. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    TMT – we agree and I agree with the different words to say the same thing assessment.

    Highway networks are very, very complicated… in terms of analyzing something more that one single new segment but so is transit…

    and I don’t think any process is going to be perfect.. and not need further refinement.

    .. but just like the SOLs with schools.. until we at least attempt to figure out some basics… I think we will continue to stumble and lurch … with respect to decision-making.

    Clearly with the Tysons transit..people.. people with decision-making power.. have decided in their own subjective minds that transit is the “right” way to go despite clear data that suggests that proceeding on the basis of congestion-relief alone.. is questionable.

    But I think just demonstrates that many, many people, including elected officials simply believe (based on our road experience) that roads are not the answer.. and to try something different in hopes that it might work.

    If you think this is a bad way to do business.. I agree.. but I’d point out that few folks were unhappy with proceeding exactly this way with respect to roads…

    and I learned something about EIS’s.. the NEPA law – it’s not about making decisions – it’s about making INFORMED decisions – which does not address at all… if, once informed, the decision-makers STILL go in a different direction. 🙂

  19. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry, it’s not a question of rail or roads in Tysons. The problem is with the specifics.

    The Silver Line went from being a transportation improvement in concept form to a a very expensive device for taxpayers that is designed for local politicians to let their big campaign contributors get desired rezoning without making any substantial transportation proffers. That’s not me just writing things. I’ve been told that by a number of very successful real estate people in NoVA.

    Originally, the Silver Line was supposed to travel down the median of the Dulles Toll Road, with a stop at Tysons Corner. I don’t know what the impact on traffic would be for such a line. But, I’ll bet you a dollar to a donut that the a line going down the Toll Road with only one stop at Tysons would be much less expensive than the “El” will be. Alternatively, Bus Rapid Transit could be built at much less cost than rail. Again, I don’t know what the impact on transit would be for BRT.

    Our BoS Chairman, Gerry Connolly, works for SAIC, which is a Tysons landowner. A station is scheduled to be built right near SAIC’s building on Route 7. Prior to working for SAIC, Mr. Connolly formerly worked for an affiliate of West Group – the largest Tysons Corner landowner. The Tysons landowners, especially West Group and its executives, are big campaign contributors to elected officials of both parties, but especially to Tim Kaine and to Gerry Connolly. You decide whether there’s any cause and effect here.

    The Silver Line is about rezoning and not about transportation. If the big landowners could get the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan amended by buying Ray Hyde’s old farm equipment and driving them up and down Routes 7 and 123, Ray would have a check in his hand tomorrow by noon.

  20. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    The Washington Post reports that West Group’s Jerry Halpin has written Governor Tim Kaine urging that he reconsider the tunnel option. I don’t suppose that Mr. Halpin’s letter addressed the federal funding issue, but he probably thinks that good lobbying can remedy that. I wonder whether he is correct.

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