Fears that the cost of building the Dulles Metrorail extension could spiral out of control have led two Congressmen to request annual project audits by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s Inspector General.

 

The request, submitted by Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who represents the district where the 23-mile light rail project is being built, and House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Latham (R-Iowa) follows a September report that put the cost of the project’s 11.7-mile second phase at $3.83 billion$1.3 billion more than originally estimated. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which is leading the project, plans to solicit bids for Phase 2 in March.

Unlike the 11.6-mile, $2.5-billion Phase 1, which began construction in early 2009 and is being financed in part by a $900 million Federal Transit Authority (FTA) New Starts grant, Phase 2 currently has no federal funding. 

Wolf and Latham write Inspector General Calvin Scovel that as members of the Subcommittee, “we have a responsibility to ensure that projects receiving federal assistance are completed in the most cost effective way and believe that your office is in a position to bring additional transparency and accountability to Dulles Rail.” 

The Congressmen also express their desire “to ensure that Dulles Rail is done well, done on time, and done on or under original cost estimates. It is imperative that all project decisions are made with the primary focus on keeping overall costs at a minimum.” 

Much of the Phase 2 price escalation stems from the original plan to route the light rail line beneath Washington Dulles International Airport and construct an underground station adjacent to the terminal. MWAA is currently studying less-costly alternatives to tunneling, including constructing a surface station approximately 600 feet further away from the terminal and linking it to an existing underground concourse. 

In a statement, MWAA spokesperson Tara Hamilton assured Congressman Wolf that her agency is committed “to ensuring the cost control and financial oversight measures in place for the Metrorail Project are effective and provide the essential fiscal discipline that this significant project warrants and the community expects.  We have always welcomed and will continue to fully cooperate with federal auditors and will do so with the US Department of Transportation Inspector General.”

 

Hamilton added that the Authority will continue its practice of conducting independent audits on the project.

Worries over tunneling costs nearly derailed the entire project in 2008, as FTA deemed the original plan to tunnel beneath densely developed Tysons Corner too expensive and uncertain a gamble to justify federal support. While a less-expensive, mainly surface route through the area allayed these fears, the agency remained skeptical of MWAA’s ability to manage such a complex project. 
 

Hamilton says that Phase 1 remains on budget and on target to begin operations in 2013.