Reston Spring

Reston Spring
Reston Spring

Monday, October 3, 2011

Is Dulles Metrorail Phase 1 Over Budget & Behind Schedule?

Articles over the weekend in two Washington papers, including a major front-page article in the Washington Post, point to recent information that Phase 1 of the Dulles Metrorail line to Wiehle is over budget and behind schedule despite recent official statements to the contrary.

The Washington Post article by Dana Hedgpeth, "Wary eyes on Dulles rail project’s bottom line"  highlights that the project has used more than 70% of its contingency fund although it's only about half way through its construction schedule.  The article begins:
 The Metrorail extension through Tysons Corner has burned through more than 70 percent of its contingency fund. With two years of construction remaining, the jurisdictions paying for the line — and Dulles Toll Road drivers — could be on the hook for millions in possible cost overruns, transportation experts say.
The project, the first phase of Metrorail’s extension to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County, began with $312.3 million allotted for unforeseen expenses two years ago. As of June, that fund had dwindled to $89.7 million.

That shrinkage feeds doubts about whether managers will be able to finish the project on time and on budget. . . .
The Saturday Washington Examiner article by Liz Esseley notes the same apparent early overuse of the Phase 1 contingency fund, but also reports "Audit: Dulles rail 6 months behind schedule."  While the report is not actually an audit, but the project manager's periodic progress report, it states the project is 188 days behind schedule.  Project officials almost certainly tried to limit the period over schedule in their reporting within reasonable bounds, but the delay is more likely to be longer than that.  The article reports:
Construction of the $7 billion Dulles Metro rail is as much as six months behind schedule despite public claims by officials in charge of the project that it is "on time, on budget."
The delay means the first phase of the Silver Line, which will eventually run to Washington Dulles International Airport, would open in June 2014 instead of late 2013, as promised. Officials declined to offer an estimate of the delay's cost, but construction averages $40 million a month.
In both articles, both MWAA and county officials minimize their concern about the likelihood of cost overruns or delayed delivery--they're watching it closely!--but none point to any specific management effort to prevent overruns and delays.   And, of course, three-quarters of any additional costs will be absorbed by Dulles Toll Road users while only one-quarter would be absorbed by the counties and MWAA under the current funding arrangement for the line's construction.

Here's how MWAA Board Chairman Snelling has reportedly handled the situation according to the Examiner:
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages the project, at first denied there was any delay after questions about the construction schedule were raised by auditors in Fairfax County, which is paying for part of the project. Authority Chairman Charles Snelling said it was "beyond dispute" that the project is "on time, on budget."

But Snelling later admitted that the authority had been warned by managers that the project was behind schedule. He said he hadn't acknowledged the delay publicly because he believed the authority and contractor would be able to make up the lost time over the last two years of construction. "They've been managing around the problems," Snelling said.
In short, he lied because it was convenient and he didn't think he'd be caught.  This is "transparency" and "integrity" as practiced by the MWAA Board of Directors.  And, by the way, the usually loquacious Tom Davis, Vice Chairman of the Board and former area Congressman, seems to have disappeared.  What does he have to say about Phase 1 and even Phase 2 costs?

Another take on this development is the disinterest expressed by Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova.   WaPo reports Bulova commented “I’m not losing any sleep yet.”   Why should she lose sleep?  Toll road users will pick up 75% of the added tab while Fairfax County absorbs 16.1%.

Using the seemingly conservative monthly cost of construction reported by the Examiner--$40 million--a six-month delay would add nearly a quarter-billion dollars to Phase 1's total cost.  This would mean a better than 12% addition to the period of construction and add nearly ten percent to the cost of the line, raising its price to three billion dollars.

With toll road users paying three-quarters of the extra quarter-billion price, tolls could quickly rise by up to ten percent above current MWAA projections for the full Dulles toll five years from now.  In July, MWAA put fares between $4.50-$9.00 in 2016 as Dulles line Phase 2 construction begins.  (Since the lower toll rate is based on the availability of federal TIFIA financing, which simply isn't going to happen according to US government officials, the higher estimate appears more realistic at this time.)  At an extra $.25-$1.00 per trip for Phase 1, Reston commuters would need to ADD $1,300 to $3,500 to their annual commuting budget by 2016 if they travel through the main toll plaza.

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