To Tunnel or Not to Tunnel

A panel of engineers has strongly recommended that the Rail-to-Dulles extension of the Washington Metro system be run underground for a four-mile stretch in Tysons Corner. Alec MacGillis with the Washington Post paraphrases local officials as saying that the tunnel “would not be prohibitively more expensive” than an above-ground track.

This recommendation comes on the heels of a warning by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-10, that the added cost of the tunnel could imperil federal funding regarded as necessary for the first phase of the heavy rail project. The situation now, as MacGillis sums it up: “With the panel’s strong support for the tunnel, it is now up to Kaine and [Secretary of Transportation Pierce] Homer to decide whether to forge ahead with it despite the concerns of Wolf and others.”

One option that some are discussing is to put up the project for rebid. The project’s contractors, a consortium of Bechtel Corp. and Washington Group International Inc., maintain that the tunnel is too expensive.

Bechtel, as reader Robert Jackson reminds me, is also the contractor for Boston’s infamous Big Dig project, which has gone billions of dollars over budget and suffers from major flaws, and as well as a nuclear waste treatment facility in Washington state that could go $7 billion over budget and six years past the completion date. I suspect that there’s plenty of blame to go all around for these two fiascos, including meddling government regulators, changing specifications and the sheer complexity of the projects. But Bechtel’s track record does not inspire confidence.

Rail-to-Dulles is much more than a transportation solution. Without a tunnel, the Metro line would shred the fabric of Tysons Corner, Virginia’s single largest commercial complex, rather than add to it. An underground rail line, by contrast, would create property values high enough to induce developers to spend billions of dollars transforming the dysfunctional, ill-connected cluster of office buidings into a world-class, pedestrian/transit-friendly business center that all Virginians can be proud of.

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9 responses to “To Tunnel or Not to Tunnel”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Like all things METRO, the devil is in the details.

    Over the long-haul, which proposal is more expensive to maintain?

  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Good point about Bechtel. That had slipped my mind. I don’t see a reason to disqualify Bechtel, but there needs to be more supervision. The Airport Authority has a pretty good track record of managing airport projects, but this is not an airport project. Are they up to it and what are the consequences to the public if the Airport Authority cannot do the job correctly?

    Jim, I must continue to challenge those who argue that Tysons will be a “world-class, pedestrian/transit-friendly business center” or reasonable substitutes thereto. The evidence strongly suggests that, even with the Silver Line, traffic will increase. A fully built-out Tysons Corner is likely to be much worse than the exising mess.

    Table 6.2-2 of the Final EIS for the Silver Line shows no traffic relief will occur as a result of building rail. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation has stated at a public meeting in McLean last November that the added density to be built as a result of the rezoning triggered by construction of the Silver Line will produce enough new vehicles and vehicle trips that will effectively undo any traffic reduction caused by the operation of Metrorail to Tysons and Dulles. At the very minimum, this means that Fairfax County traffic in and around the Silver Line would be as bad as it is today, even after spending a minumum of $4 B.

    If the Fairfax County Board approves all of the rezoning requests, there will be many many more autmobiles driving in and around Tysons Corner. For example, the request to rezone the Tysons Corner shopping center would add 9000 new parking spaces to the existing 7000. Moreover, all of the new spaces would be for the offices and condos that would be built. Unless the owners are spending millions to build parking garages to set empty, there will be thousands of cars going into and out of those parking garages every day. How can one add 9000 parking spaces to one of the most congested areas of the East Coast and call it an improvement? Keep in mind too that the shopping center rezoning is but one of more than 20 requests for major land use changes. How many more automobiles will those projects generate?

    While I’ve not yet seen the data, an acquaintance of mine who is very active in Fairfax County land use matters has informed me that he has seen data that suggests the added number of new vehicle trips would be twice as many as those that would occur if the 28,000 new houses are built in Loudoun County. If the Loudoun County proposal wrecks havoc, what must we conclude about a project that would produce twice as much traffic?

    All of this is not consistent with “world-class, pedestrian/transit-friendly business center.” That’s the problem with these proposals. The sponsors and their purchased team of public officials from both political parties talk a good game, but are not setting forth the facts. Calling a cow a horse does not make a horse.

    The proposed changes to Tysons Corner are the most substantial land use changes affecting Virginia since the English arrived in 1607. Shouldn’t all of the facts be aired before decisions are made?

  3. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Postscript — Just to provide a little perspective to 16,000 parking spaces at what is now the Tysons Corner shopping center should the rezoning request be granted, Dulles International Airport has slightly more than 25,000 parking spaces. Richmond International Airport has about 8,000. Both figures were obtained from the airports’ websites.

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    TMT, I wonder how useful your traffic congestion projections are. Let me start by posing a question: How many people in Tysons Corner walk to get anywhere? Hardly anyone from my limited observation. Let’s make the question more concrete: How many people walk to lunch? Close to zero, right? In downtown Richmond, where I spent 16 years, almost everyone walked to lunch — unless they were meeting someone outside of downtown. That put a lot of people on sidewalks, took a lot of cars off the streets and kept congestion pretty minimal. If Tysons is redeveloped to create a pedestrian-friendly environment, I don’t see congestion being nearly as bad as people fear during most of the day. Somehow, people manage in downtown Richmond, Norfolk, Alexandria and Washington. They’ll manage in Tysons, too.

    There may be a problem getting people in and out of Tysons that will be only partially alleviated by (a) the Metro and (b) a larger but still modest number of people living in the area. That’s why it’s critical for all redevelopment to be accompanied by Traffic Demand Management plans that maximize the use of buses, vans, carpools and other types of shared ridership, as well as telework and flexible work shifts.

  5. Toomanytaxes Avatar


    I don’t know how valid the traffic projections are. What should occur is that this issue be handled in an open and visible manner. But what we see in Fairfax County is mere rhetoric.

    Also, read today’s Post about the scandal in Fairfax County’s planning and zoning department. Just as in Montgomery County, MD (Clarksburg), we see a revelation that houses were built too high. Keep in mind that Fairfax County officials have admitted that the County lacks any system to track compliance with either zoning conditions or proffers. What else lurks under the surface? As I recall, Gerry Connolly recently boasted that what happened in Montgomery County could not happen in Fairfax County.

    Why would anyone living in Fairfax County have the trust in county government to handle Tysons Corner correctly under these circumstances? Tysons TDM will be anything that the landowners request and it will not be tracked for compliance.

    One more interesting factoid. The additional 9000 parking spaces projected for the Tysons Corner shopping center’s condos and office buildings exceed those of the Pentagon (8770). How many new Pentagon parking lots would be added in total to Tysons?

    In theory, I’d probably agree with you that TOD done correctly could help even Tysons Corner, but we are dealing with Fairfax County, where campaign contributions override the public interest and almost everything else. The county board is planning to define TOD, but only after it addresses the Tysons Corner zoning requests. Is that the proper approach?

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    TMT, Fair enough. We’re carrying on a discussion at two different levels. At one level, we’re arguing what “should” be done to make Fairfax more liveable. At another level, we’re arguing what “will” be the likely results of such idealistic policies when implemented by the current governing structure of Fairfax County.

    I will readily concede that no set of land use/transportation policies will yield a “perfect” solution. Every alternative entails trade-offs. My hope is to devise the optimal, “least bad” set of arrangements — assuming, of course, that they can be competently implemented.

    The other difference between you and me is not so much our underlying principles but the perspectives we bring to bear. You want the optimal results for Fairfax County. I argue for the optimal results for the Northern Virginia sub-region. At the heart of the problem with Virginia’s governance structure are the “beggar thy neighbor” policies by which one locality seeks to optimize its own good (taxes, housing, transportation) at the expense of its neighbors. From a regional perspective, the results are less than optimal — as you would readily agree if Loudoun County made planning decisions that resulted in more traffic on Fairfax roads.

    Add to that layer of complexity the fact that many elected officials act in seemingly irrational and perverse ways, with the consequence that the best-laid of plans turn into hash, and it all becomes a brain-frying mess. Maybe we’d all be better off renting a cottage by the Bay and drinking Bloody Marys!

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Jim, for several years, I worked in Tysons corner.

    By most measures, I would ahve been a supercommuter, to get there, and yet, I used very little of the usual radial comuting routes to get there.

    Once I was there, it wasn’t uncommon, in fact it was usual, for me to walk to lunch. Frequently lunch would involve dozens of my co-workers.

    And, at our usual gatherting places, we could, over time, expect to meet a number of our compatriots from other companies. In fact, we had organizes happy hours.

    The one thing we seldom did, at least without our autos, was to cross Route 7 to emporiums on the other side.

    Your argument is both right and wrong, but I think in the contesxt of NOVA as a whole, it is inconsequential.

  8. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Walkable Tysons. Everyone talks about it, but what do we know about it?

    There are more than 20 proposed zoning changes for Tysons, but I’m not sure that many call for replacing the wide, meandering streets with anything like a grid system found in most urban areas. I could be wrong, but my understanding is that most of the proposals would add density on existing properties. I’m sure that some streets would be constructed, but, by and large, the roads we have are the roads we have. If this is not right, I would appreciate a correction.

    Wouldn’t it be incredibly expensive to reconstruct a grid system for roads? Has there ever been a suburban area that has been rebuilt into an urban one, including the replacement of the roads? This is probably a question for Ed.

  9. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Additional information on another cost estimate for building the tunnel. See my post to “High-Stakes Poker at the Rail-to-Dulles Table.” I don’t know whether it’s correct, but we need more, and not less, information about the costs for this big project before any commitments are made.

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