Tysons Tunnel Plan Caves In

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has nixed plans for building a tunnel underneath Tysons Corner as part of the proposed extension of the Metro heavy rail system to Dulles airport. Said the Governor in a prepared statement yesterday:

“We carefully reviewed the tunnel option at Tysons, and I share the belief of many of our project partners that a tunnel alignment would be the best option. However, too many unanswered questions remain about cost and timing. These uncertainties cannot be allowed to jeopardize this critical project.”

I share the reaction of Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman, D-Lee, who also serves on the Metro board. As reported by the Washington Post, he said:

“This will prove to be the wrong decision for the wrong reasons,” said Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who is also on the Metro board. “Ten years from now, I regret my son may pick up a planning text where Fairfax’s long-awaited rail extension is highlighted as a failed attempt at service and economic development. It can’t only be about the here and now.”

This decision could well define the urban form of Tysons Corner for 100 years or more. It totally undermines the effort to reinvent Virginia’s largest center of corporate activity as a pedestrian-friendly district.

But there could be a silver lining. This could prove to be the decision that prompts Fairfax political and civic leaders to do what they should have done all along: Figure out how to finance the additional cost of running the rail line underground by capturing the increased property values created by proximity to Tysons’ four proposed Metro stations.

The solution is simple conceptually (the devil, of course, is in the details): Establish Community Development Authorities within a 1/4-mile radius of the four proposed Metro stations, issue $50 million in bonds for each CDA, raising the total $200 million or so needed to build the tunnel, and pay off the bonds with a special tax levied against property owners in the CDA. An underground Metro station will increase the value of surrounding property enormously. Fairfax County can sweeten the pot, as needed, by approving increases in development density.

There is no excuse for failing to run the tunnel underground.

Update: Policy Soup has posted the reaction of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. Bottom line: The Chamber is disappointed… but supports the Governor’s decision.

Update: Paul Anderson at Virginia Centrist had the opportunity to question Gov. Kaine this afternoon about his decision to go the no-tunnel route, and he provides an explanation of why the CDA strategy will not work. Anyone who’s tracking this issue needs to read his post here. (Who says that bloggers don’t do original reporting! Great job, Paul.)


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14 responses to “Tysons Tunnel Plan Caves In”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I would think the CDA approach is dead-on.

    All the discussion about land-use and transportation and who pays – here you have a transportation project that will benefit the areas adjacent to it – it makes sense to make the connection.

    Puzzling though.. the Feds and the two Congressman had made clear early on that the cost of the project with tunnel imperiled the required determination by the Feds that the project would be cost-effective.

    Are we to presume that even if supporters.. came back with the CDA solution that the Feds would still not be happy with the cost-effectiveness issue – no matter what the source of funding?

  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar
    Toomanytaxes

    Larry,

    As it was explained to me by a state Department of Rail & Public Transportation employee and, separately, by Congressman Wolf’s office, the federal statute compares the total projected costs, regardless of who pays, to the benefits. If the project supporters were to agree to cover all additional costs without any additional taxpayer funds (ha, ha), the federal formula would not change. The feds simply will not fund a project that does not meet its cost/benefit guidelines.

    IMHO, it’s important for those of you residing outside Fairfax or Loudoun Counties to realize that the Silver Line project is NOT about transportation. It’s about land use rezoning. Project supporters have said so. If a four-station train line is built through Tysons Corner, the Fairfax County Board will likely vote to increase density to FARs as high as 5.0. Thus, if you are West Group, any rail extension is better than no rail extension.

    Clearly, the construction of elevated rail would degrade Tysons Corner, while an underground line would enhance it. As a result, the potential property values of the Tysons landowners took a big hit yesterday. But the bottom line is that the landowners truly want rail regardless of what it looks like, costs, etc.

    As I understand the situation, the landowners and their contractors could still propose to build entire line, with a tunnel, under the Public-Private Partnership Act, forgoing federal funds. But they won’t do that; they are too smart. They know that the project, with or without a tunnel, will experience big cost overruns. They need taxpayers and toll road users to pay the bills.

    Alternatively, the State could, but won’t, propose to build the Silver Line down the middle of the Dulles Toll Road, eliminating the run through Tysons Corner, or to construct Bus Rapid Transit. But neither of those options would permit the Fairfax County Board to grant the huge increases in density desired by the Tysons landowners. Remember that this is about land use and not about transportation.

  3. I liked the comment “We can’t wait for a good project to become a erfect one.” or words to that effect.

    I’m glad those guys aren’t building airplanes.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    After reading Virginia Centrist’s thoughts on the situation I have come to the conclusion that all hope is not lost….yet.

    Hopefully, Tyson’s will become a place where there is a balance of both housing AND jobs as opposed to an imbalance of one over the other (think housing only Loudoun County).

    I was never convinced that Tyson’s could have become a pedestrian friendly environment. The road network that is already in place does not allow for that.

    Instead of a tunnel for Metro perhaps smaller/cheaper tunnels could be dug under rt. 7/ rt.123 to “connect” different properties. Or, a larger system of pedestrian overpasses could achieve the same thing (think the overpasses at the Vienna Station over I-66).

    At the end of the day, if you live in Tyson’s Corner but can’t walk to work or take the metro because a station is too far away then a tremendous amount of $$$ is about to be wasted no matter where the rail line goes.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 3:50, Good points. A system of pedestrian underpasses/overpasses may be the fallback position. You could probably buy a lot of pedestrian bridges for $200 million.

  6. Toomanytaxes Avatar
    Toomanytaxes

    3:50 and Jim, no one’s answered the question: what’s in an urbanized Tysons Corner with Metrorail for the existing residents of Fairfax County?

    Even without a tunnel, there are likely to be lots of cost overruns. Who will pay for them? There’s a good chance that it would be residential real estate taxes paying significant portions of those added costs. So would Dulles Toll Road drivers.

    There’s no reduction in traffic congestion, as per the Final EIS. Moreover, one group, using public data, has estimated that the added density would produce as many as 500,000 new automobile trips each day, even with Metro. How does that help existing county residents?

    More people will be adding new demands on the already over-burdened infrastructure. Of course, the Fairax County supervisors won’t even think of negotiating proffers that come close to the costs of adding infrastructure. Indeed, these new high-priced condos would each contribute less than $500 to Fairfax County schools. Guess where the rest of the money will come from? Don’t forget parks, soccer and baseball fields, sewer, fire, police, libraries, etc. This seems like more negatives for county citizens.

    A denser Tysons Corner will not result in affordable housing. The land and construction costs are simply too high for builders to construct affordable housing units and still make a fair profit. One new condo complex is already advertising one bedroom units starting at more than $500,000.

    Extending Metrorail to Tysons will trigger enough new development to decrease the quality of life for the average Fairfax County resident and increase real estate taxes substantially to boot. I don’t understand how anyone can argue that this is good for ordinary people in the county.

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar

    TTM, I share your concerns about the Rail-to-Dulles project running over budget. Metro performance to date does not inspire confidence. Who will be on the stick for overruns? The taxpayer, of course — or, more precisely, commuters along the Dulles Toll Road.

    On the other hand, I have to dispute your statement that the Metro would not help congestion at all. Yes, at the end of the day, there might be localized congestion even if Metro is built. But there will be congestion in a higher-capacity system. Compare it to the alternative. What if Metro were not built? What would the congestion be then? Even worse!

    The only real alternative, it seems to me, would be to take the toll road proceeds and reinvest it in improvements to the toll road — two-way smart lanes, that sort of thing. How much capacity would that add to the system?

    I also question the picture you draw of a densified Tysons Corner as a congested hell. Every developer permitted to build at higher densities will be required to present demand-management plans. Not only would Tysons become more pedestrian friendly with all the envisioned improvements, you’d have buses and vans and car-pooling coming out the wazoo. It would not be a case of an additional car for every additional worker.

  8. Toomanytaxes Avatar
    Toomanytaxes

    Jim,

    Sorry to dig in so hard, but you are dead wrong on the Metro issue. Go to dullesmetro.com and then to “project documents.” Next locate the Final EIS from December 2004. Open Chapter 6 and locate Table 6.2-2. Compare the Level of Service for the “no build alternative” with the Level of Service for the “full Locally Preferred Alternative.” The results are just about the same after spending at least $4 B. Unless there are newer data than the Final EIS, the only conclusion that can be reasonably drawn is that there is no traffic improvement with Metrorail. If the data on Table 6.2-2 tells you something different, please let me know. I would be more than happy to be proven wrong on this point.

    Until I studied that table and dug behind it, I was in the very same position as you. It was intuitive that building Metrorail would improve traffic congestion. But my intuition was totally wrong, as is yours.

    As far as traffic in a redeveloped Tysons Corner is concerned, we need VDOT to perform a traffic study for Tysons, just as it did for Loudoun County. We need VDOT to take all of the requested increases in density, calculate the added car trips, less those trips shifted to Metrorail, and publish the results. I suspect that the projected new trips would be staggering. Indeed, last evening I was talking with a member of the Tysons Corner Task Force, appointed by the supervisors to study Tysons and make recommendations. The Member, who is a very strong supporter of Metrorail’s extension, indicated that he also expects the traffic volumes to be overwhelming if all of the requested density is granted.

    Of course, the Board of Supervisors could simply state that they will not grant the requested increases in density. Also, the supervisors are seriously looking at mandatory TDM plans. But what is the penalty for failure? As I recall, at Metro West, there would be delays in build out and a $50 K penalty. How quick can a $50 K penalty be paid when condos start at more than $500 K? The local residents will pay if TDM fails.

    I sense that you just want Fairfax County residents to trust that things will work out fine. There is no trust of our elected officials on land use matters. We’ve been burned way too many times.

  9. Tobias Jodter Avatar
    Tobias Jodter

    …what’s in an urbanized Tysons Corner with Metrorail for the existing residents of Fairfax County?

    Same thing as always, HIGHER TAXES…

  10. I think Jim is correct in saying that you now have congestion in a higher capacity system. The value of that marginally higher capacity is the value of Metro. Whether that is worth what Metro costs or not, I couldn’t say.

    But I don’t buy the argument that without Metro the congestion would be even worse: we don’t and can’t have any way of knowing that. My sense is that in many places and for many commutes, you are bumping up against what people are willing to put up with. Before it gets much worse, with or without Metro, people will start going someplace else.

    We’ve had thirty years of Metro and we still have the second worse congestion in the country, over a larger areas, and Metro itself is congested. A lot of Metro riders drive to the station. How much more proof do you need before you take the argument that transit reduces congestion off the table?

    TMT proposes a horror show, we build Metro to Tysons and then refuse the density and FAirfax residents get stuck with the costs. YIKES.

    And Tobias hit it on the head, if a transit oriented, pedestrian friendly, densified area is so efficient, then why does it always result in higher taxes? (And higher living costs?)

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Wow. I see .. NO CONSENSUS …about the issue of congestion – not in terms of how best to do something about it nor in terms of how new growth might be acommodated.

    I don’t agree that people will leave because of congestion. Where would they go? To other cities with the same issues?

    Or let’s me put this another way… show me the metro areas that are losing people and jobs because of congestion.

    Congestion is elastic. The worse it gets, the more people change and adapt to it… not without heavy-duty complaining.

    The Polls I have seen indicate that people ARE willing to pay more (taxes, tolls, etc) for improvements but they want a level of assurance that the improvements are real and have real schedules… and many… whether it makes sense or not… do support transit.

    TMT – cost effectiveness – well.. at least there IS a methodology for transit…. where is the one for roads?

    TMT – why do you think two Congressmen and a large number of local elected officials SUPPORT this if it is such a disaster? Why are the elected officials who support this not in danger of being thrown out of office?

    TMT – is your view of this consistent with the majority view in the region?

    I’m not saying I think you are wrong but I do find it hard to believe that so many top level officials would essentially be conducting themselves in such an irresponsible way if the issue were so clear cut as you claim.

    It would seem to me that if this project was not wanted by the public at large that there would be a huge outcry and politicians being .. politicians would clearly sense which way the wind was blowing and not fall on their swords on principles. 🙂 How say you?

  12. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Who says that higher densification always results in higher taxes? Are we basing that on the fact that places like New York City and Washington, D.C., are more dense than suburbs, and have higher taxes, ergo, densification causes the higher taxes?

    There are many other variables that could account for the higher taxes, including the presence of a larger percentage of poor people and higher social spending, higher (though less efficient) spending on education, greater spending on a wide variety of amenities from libraries to cultural centers, not to mention the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s-era decay of the tax base, which only bottomed out and started the logn climb back up in the ’90s.

  13. Toomanytaxes Avatar
    Toomanytaxes

    All: My strongest argument continues to be Table 6.2-2. No one, be they an elected official or an ordinary citizen, seems to want address it head on. I know that few people have ever seen it. Why would the average person read an EIS? I only read it as preparation for a meeting on the Hill. But reading it changed my view of expanding Metrorail.

    I suspect that most people who support Metrorail’s extension do so for the very reason I previously did — intuition tells them that mass transit will help get people off the roads. I.e., traffic congestion would decline as more people switched from driving to taking the train. But I suggest the following question: What if the WaPo and other area media started running stories on the traffic impacts of Metro? What if Sunday’s headline story was: “State Study Shows Metro’s Silver Line Will Not Reduce Traffic”? Would that change people’s view? I don’t know. I suspect some would change. I can only say that every person that has ever seen Table 6.2-2 has either changed her/his view of the extension or has simply refused to address the issue presented. Study the table and see what you think.

    I’m not arguing to tear down Metro. I’m not necessarily opposing running a line down the Toll Road median. That might (or might not) be cost-effective. It would certainly cost less than the route through Tysons. All I’m arguing is: spending $4 B on a project that does not reduce traffic congestion is foolish and that the real purpose of running the line through Tysons is to permit a few landowners to receive a financial windfall. The Silver Line is not about transportation; it’s about changing the zoning in Tysons Corner on the backs of taxpayers and Toll Road users.

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “State Study Shows Metro’s Silver Line Will Not Reduce Traffic”?

    then what?

    the next headline “”State Study Shows more highways in NoVa won’t reduce congestion”

    🙂

    what is the way forward?

    how do we break the gridlock in people’s minds about what to do?

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