Plans for a $5-billion rail transit extension towards northern Virginia's Dulles International Airport have cleared an important hurdle, with the Federal Transit Administration's Dec. 3 approval of a $900-million, multi-year funding commitment to the project's $2.6-billion first phase. The deal isn't done yet, however. The proposed commitment still needs approval by U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and the Office of Management and Budget.

Sarah Echols, a U.S. DOT spokesperson, said, "The department is continuing to review this complex project to ensure it meets all statutory requirements and additional conditions agreed to by the project sponsors." Such reviews traditionally take about 30 days. If Peters and OMB approve the plan, it would go before Congress for a 60-day review. Beyond that, it would be up to congressional Appropriations committees to provide annual installments of the $900 million.

FTA Acting Administrator Sherry E. Little's signoff on a $900-million "full-funding grant agreement" marks a turnabout for the agency. In January, then-FTA Administrator James Simpson said that the project's rating "would render it ineligible to advance to final design."

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is managing the project, and other officials then went to work to address issues raised by Simpson. Among other steps, they trimmed its cost by $242 million or about 9%. After the changes, FTA agreed to allow the project to move to final design, and $159 million in federal funds was released for that work.

As envisioned, the line ultimately would be a 23-mile spur of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's Orange Line. Phase One is a 11.6-mile segment from the Metro East and West Falls Church stations, to Wiehle Ave, and includes five stations, four of which would be in the busy commercial area around Tysons Corner, near the Capital Beltway. The 11.5-mile, six-station second phase would carry the line to the airport and Route 772 in Loudoun County.