Back From the Dead?
Officials should get cracking to revive Dulles rail.
FEDERAL transportation officials who all but delivered the coup de grace to the planned Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport have come under tough criticism from some members of Congress, and not just those with constituents in Northern Virginia. Apparently shaken, they seem willing to hold off on a final decision to bury the project. Officials should seize on this pause to revive a project critical to the Washington area and one of the nation’s key airports.
It’s clear from the details that have trickled out that there’s plenty of blame for last week’s debacle — between the feds who had been expected to provide $900 million and local entities involved in getting the $5 billion, 23-mile rail extension built. There’s no question that federal officials gave conflicting signals, leading Metro, the airports authority and Virginia state officials to think the project would be approved. But local officials were not without fault. As recently as Jan. 16, a Metro official wrote a letter warning that the transit agency would not take final control of the new rail from the airports authority (which was to oversee construction) unless a number of problems were resolved. Needless to say, that gave the Federal Transit Administration reason to question the soundness of the manage- ment structure for such a massive project and the wisdom of funding it.
All of that is water under the bridge. What’s important is that extending Metro to the airport serves the interests of the federal government as well as Northern Virginia. Not only do federal workers and contractors need easy access to the airport, the government’s security depends upon having a multitude of options for evacuation in case of terrorist attack. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail in the coming days, and officials can go back to the drawing board.
Already, some breathing room has been provided by the contractors, who agreed to a month’s postponement on a contract set to go into effect tomorrow. Officials should now focus on resolving tasks such as ensuring longterm capital funding for Metro (imperiled partly by a single senator, Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who doesn’t mind sacrificing the region’s transit infrastructure on the altar of ideology); providing Metro with more input on design and construction; and revisiting the design and financing arrangements.
The rail extension’s obituaries were written last week, including one by us. But if there remains even a whisker of a chance of resurrecting the project, officials should seize it.