U.S. changes course on Dulles airport rail plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government reversed course on Wednesday and said it would support a $5 billion plan to extend a regional commuter rail line to Dulles airport, Washington’s main international airport.

A Metropolitian Washington Airports Authority police officer keeps watch inside the departure terminal at Dulles International Airport outside Washington July 2, 2007. REUTERS/Larry Downing

The Federal Transit Administration said it would provide $158.7 million to complete financial and construction planning for the 23-mile rail link to the Washington Metrorail system. But the Bush administration said that commitment is no guarantee of future support.

“There are still hurdles facing this project and we will not commit any federal funds for construction until a number of outstanding issues are resolved,” said James Simpson, FTA administrator.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority must ensure it has sufficient funds to cover risks and prove the project will be completed on time and within budget, he said. Trains throughout the Washington Metro system must also be in working order, he said.

Federal, state and local officials have been wrangling over the Dulles rail project for years. Supporters argue it would alleviate traffic congestion in northern Virginia, where the airport is located, and provide convenient, affordable transportation to the nation’s capital from the international airport.

Detractors have worried about a variety of issues, including whether the total cost is too high, if the line will cut traffic enough and where stations will be located.

In January, the FTA stunned the Virginia congressional delegation and local politicians by deciding the rail project did not meet its criteria for funding, due to spiraling costs and technical concerns.

The federal government was concerned the metrorail and airport authorities had not found a good way to integrate their operations, Simpson told reporters in a call on Wednesday. It was also worried that the toll road revenues were insufficient, he said.

The decision triggered months of negotiations.

“Much work remains to be done, but we will commit the necessary resources to keep this project moving forward,” Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said in a statement.

Simpson said that while the state and local agencies were able to locate more than $200 million in savings for the first phase of the project’s construction, and they pledged to keep $200 million in a capital reserve account, the federal government was still worried about the condition of the trains and existing stations.

According to a U.S. Transportation Department memo released last summer, the project would likely require $1.5 billion in federal funds.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation Web site on the project said the U.S. government will provide 43 percent of the money for the first phase of construction, while Virginia would pay 28 percent of funds with toll road revenue.

Fairfax County, which is home to the airport, would pitch in another 28 percent, using revenues from a special commercial tax district. In the second phase, money would be provided by Fairfax and Loudoun counties, along with the airport authority.

The 45-year-old airport serves 24.7 million passengers annually, with nonstop flights to 87 U.S. destinations and 40 international cities.

Reporting by Lisa Lambert