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Rein's "OMG $15 billion" Tysons costs include transportation far from Tysons

Today's Washington Post reports that Tysons transportation improvements will cost $15 billion. There's just one problem: it's false. The article, bearing the alarmist headline, "Tysons will need $15 billion—'with a B,'" begins:

What a dream. Photo by m t miller.
Remaking Tysons Corner into the second city of Washington will take a lot more than a new Metro line and a downtown of tightly clustered buildings designed for walking. It will take almost $15 billion in new roads and public transportation.
When Lisa "sprawl is a dream" Rein writes, "[it] will take a lot more than a new Metro line," do you conclude that the $15 billion represents costs on top of the Metro line? That's the way it looks to me. But actually, the $15 billion figure includes the $5.24 billion for the Silver Line. And that's not just the portion to Tysons; it's the whole segment all the way to Loudoun County, which will serve a lot more than just Tysons commuters.

That's not all. The $15 billion also covers rail to Centreville, for $2.3 billion, which wouldn't even go to Tysons. There's another $2.5 billion in there for some vague "other rail," which could be the Purple Line and could possibly go to Tysons. Or maybe not. Who knows? Who cares, when you're the Washington Post Fairfax team? In all, $10 of the $15 billion is just general Northern Virginia rail projects.

What else? There's all of the operating costs for these lines over 40 years, much of which will come from the tax revenue. Of course, Rein doesn't count any revenues. It's just all of the costs. Heck, why not toss in all of the cost of lunches that Tysons employees will probably buy, or all the paper the offices will consume? Then the figure could go to trillions! That would really make for an exciting headline.

You wouldn't know from Rein's article, but Fairfax planners break up the actual projections into 2010-2030 and 2030-2050 time frames. In the 2010-2030 phase, the street grid itself costs $742 million (that's not with a B), including right-of-way acquisition costs. However, much of the acquisition will come from developers in exchange for the density, so it's not all outlays of actual money. The Circulator will cost $389 million for capital and operating funds. And the probably-unnecessary ramps and Beltway lanes would cost an additional $369 million.

Most of the other costs are already part of the Fairfax Comprehensive Plan, independent of this Tysons plan. In total, the infrastructure that Tysons would need above and beyond the existing plan totals about $1.48 billion, including unnecessary lanes and ROW acquisition costs that developers would pay.

Even looking at the whole $15 billion for all of Northern Virginia over 40 years, that comes out to $375 million a year. For a huge jurisdiction that could essentially build a brand new medium-sized city, that's actually a steal. And for Tysons alone, the $1.5 billion over 20 years is just $75 million.

Unfortunately for Rein and her headline writer, $1.48 billion with some paid for by developers sounds so much less outrageous. So does "$75 million 'with an M'!" or even $375 million. No, $15 billion "with a B" made for better copy, even if it lumped in substantial infrastructure outside Tysons, other already-planned improvements, operating costs for 40 years, and even speculative transit that nobody has planned yet.

Could it be that Rein just didn't realize this? Nope; it's pretty clear from the list showing the planners' totals. (The pages are in reverse order, with 2030-2050 first.) And here's the presentation from the Wednesday public meeting that triggered Rein's article. But Rein clearly doesn't seem to let pesky facts get in the way of a good story. To do so might reduce the backlash against plans that could destroy those dreamy acres of parking lots.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Journalists and math often don't go well together. The Post is just publishing poorly researched garbage here, the revenue and circulation declines are really showing up in a lot of what's getting written there. But when you start associating this with a particular viewpoint on the subject matter, you're giving them more credibility than they deserve.

by David on Oct 30, 2009 2:10 pm • linkreport

...and the hits just keep coming from the Post transportation coverage.

by Cavan on Oct 30, 2009 2:36 pm • linkreport

Maybe the Post has the same people doing the numbers on circulation and revenue as they had doing the research on this story.

If David's got this right, then this is remarkably bad reporting.

by Gavin Baker on Oct 30, 2009 4:49 pm • linkreport

the WaPo is no longer loyal to the city or our citizens .
It is now mostly oriented to the suburbs and to other places in the USA far away from DC. I am continuosly astonished by false or mis-informed statements about DC & it's history made by woefully un-informed reporters or writers in the WaPo who seem to think that no one lives in DC for more than 5 years- so they never bother to learn about us.

It is mostly written by transients or people who live in the suburbs and have absolutely nothing to do w/ the city.

Just because it promotes "liberal" leaning politics does not make it a progressive newspaper.

by w on Oct 30, 2009 5:10 pm • linkreport

Using their math the cost of Tyson area workers would be near infinite. Most pay parking and then there is gas and general wear and tear. Multiply that by 50 years and 100,000 cars+ a day...

by NikolasM on Oct 30, 2009 5:36 pm • linkreport

I've read the Washington Post my whole life. If took a tabliod-ish turn about a year and a half ago.

I understand they have to make money, but they are undermining their reader loyalty with increased sensationalism in the process. If the paper had started charing for the web site about 2 years ago I probably would have subscribed, and still been a subscriber had they kept up their reporting. I don't know any more.

by stevek_fairfax on Oct 30, 2009 5:44 pm • linkreport

Have any national newspapers like the post or NY Times considered charging for local news (metro, local politics, local sports etc), but leaving national stories free?

That might be a model where they could rectify advertising desire for website "hits" from Anywhere USA folks interested in national politics with local desire for acurate reporting - which does not draw as many hits by the nature of the web.

by stevek_fairfax on Oct 30, 2009 5:50 pm • linkreport

@stevek - That is an interesting idea. If it gets me accurate reporting, I'd be willing to pay a bit for my local news.

by Justin..... on Oct 30, 2009 5:55 pm • linkreport

Wow. Just wow. I mean, we all complain about slants or about "windshield perspective" or little slights here and there that can often just be ingrained in someone's perspective. But this is a whole other level of just terrible reporting and journalism. Aside from the focus on this one reporter, it's terrible work and oversight by her editors, who should really be on the hook for something this bad. Yikes.

by Steve Davis on Oct 30, 2009 6:24 pm • linkreport

Please get her on here for a chat. I can't decide whether to hate her or pity her.

by цarьchitect on Oct 30, 2009 7:03 pm • linkreport

Journalists seem usable to do anything with numbers. they also seem incapable of using Google. WaPo scribblers also seem to know little, if anything, about the DC area.

by Rich on Oct 30, 2009 8:39 pm • linkreport

By the way, let me explain the younger readers here what a newspaper is. It's kinda like a blog, but not distributed through the internet or on a computer. The text is distributed on thin layers of mashed dead tree, bagged and thrown in your front yard by some high school kid. So instead of just grabbing your PDA and reading the news, you had to get up and dressed, pick the newspaper from the front yard and unpack it. This is basically how your parents always got up so early.

WaPo? RIP!

by Jasper on Oct 31, 2009 9:20 am • linkreport

The larger point, entirely ignored by the Post article, is that there is a cost for congestion, whether it is urban or suburban, planned or unplanned, paid for deliberately through policy or paid for happenstantially by whoever is unlucky enough to get in the way. There is no cheap way out-- it's either pay now intelligently or pay later stupidly.

by MattF on Nov 1, 2009 10:17 am • linkreport

"The $15 billion also covers rail to Centreville, for $2.3 billion, which wouldn't even go to Tysons."

Yes, but people coming from Centreville and other parts of Fairfax County take I-66 to get to Tysons. If we want to convert Tysons to a walkable urban center based on rail connections, extending the Orange Line along the I-66 median to Centreville is part of that strategy. In the absence of a rail strategy, the alternative would be to expand I-66; that would still cost significant amounts of money, though it would be cheaper than extending Metro.

You're certainly right that the headline doesn't make it clear that this is part of a 20-40 year strategy, and that it's a document for all of Fairfax County. But if we're serious about making Tysons a walkable urban center, then it makes sense to provide a way for people in the rest of Fairfax County to get to Tysons by Metro instead of having to drive. It is a sensible part of an overall rail strategy.

Saying that the Orange Line extension "wouldn't even go to Tysons" is a little misleading. Yes, it would have a connection at West Falls Church, but it "wouldn't go to Tysons" in the same sense that I-66 "doesn't go to Tysons" right now.

by John T. on Nov 1, 2009 11:50 am • linkreport

Lisa Rein's article was quite good. If any of you had taken the time to follow the multiple years of proceedings on Tysons Corner, you would likely agree with the article.

First, I agree adding density at the four Tysons stations makes sense. But how much density and under what conditions?

The traffic studies show that, even with mixed use and the four rail stations, the majority of travel to, and from, Tysons Corner will continue to be by single occupancy vehicle. You may not like that conclusion, but it's what the best evidence shows.

This means, of course, that there needs to be huge, costly road improvements, including adding three more interchanges to on the Toll Road between the Beltway and just past Route 7. That, in turn, requires the expansion of the Toll Road from 8 to 13 lanes to Hunter Mill Road, four of which must be distributor-collector lanes similar to I-270. Those lanes will likely require the taking of backyards, homes and park land, including portions of Wolf Trap. Also, we need one additional Outer Loop lane from Tysons to I-66.

Then, when these and all other expensive road improvements occur, the studies also show that all transportation fails once Tysons grows to 84 million square feet. The landowners, of course, want to go well beyond 84 million square feet. Thus, the county says we need massive investments in mass transit for Tysons to grow beyond 84 million square feet -- expansion of the Orange Line, for example. But for expanding the Orange Line, Tysons cannot grow beyond 84 million square feet. Unless someone can prove the county's analysis incorrect, isn't it fair to include the Orange Line costs in the calculation?

Alternatively, we can make a plan that lets Tysons add density just at the rail stations and at a level that does NOT require five more Toll Road lanes, three more interchanges, another Outer Loop lane, Orange Line expansion, etc.

Tysons Corner is a mess. Pretending that rail and mixed-use fix things is wrong. The facts and analysis show otherwise.

by Tysons Realist on Nov 1, 2009 12:15 pm • linkreport

Unless you can prove that absent the relatively bold plan for redevelopment at Tysons that there wouldn't be any upgrades to I-66 or an orange line extension to C'ville, it's misleading to use the costs of those projects against Tysons development. Thinking 40-50 yrs down the road, it's likely that we would see a push for metro and more lanes on I-66 regardless. The area between I-66, 267 and Tysons on I-495, even if there were no new development, would need some traffic alleviation. In case you didn't notice, there are a lot of traffic-clogged areas in Northern Virginia that have either been mismanaged or neglected and need upgrades just to provide a better quality of life at the current level of population and usage.

Also, adding the costs of the silver line out towards Dulles and Loudoun County also shouldn't be lumped in with Tysons; at the very best it's misleading. Originally, there wasn't going to be metro through Tysons, and while it's certainly added a lot of costs to route it through Tysons, nevertheless, the costs of extending the metro into reston, dulles and towards wiehle ave. should have their own title or be separated from the direct costs of Tysons redevelopment.

A variety of projects throughout Northern Virginia will have effects on moving people towards or through Tysons, but unless you're upfront about it, it misleads a lot of people who simply read headlines and use something like this to rail against gov't and developers and hippie smart growth advocates. It can't be emphasized enough that with a dollar figure like this, it's for the long-term and covers a wide range of costs to facilitate growth not just in Tysons, but growth at a modest rate across the county and to make improve current high levels of traffic.

by Vik on Nov 2, 2009 4:10 pm • linkreport

"Alternatively, we can make a plan that lets Tysons add density just at the rail stations and at a level that does NOT require five more Toll Road lanes, three more interchanges, another Outer Loop lane, Orange Line expansion, etc."

What plan is this? Tell us what density level you feel is appropriate to achieve this. I don't understand how the Tysons plan will require us to extend the orange line. An orange line extension would probably be on the short list of extensions and infill stations in Northern Virginia as it is. 40-50 yrs is a long time, at a modest growth rate, in this time period, there would be greater demand and strain on the area's roadways and rails even if we don't drastically increase density at Tysons Corner.

Fairlee-MetroWest, more development in Arlington, development in Falls Church, Dunn Loring, Fairfax Corner/Gov't Center, all these areas and developments will need infrastructure upgrades and it's not right to say incorporate these costs in with the Tysons redevelopment project. Same for the Dulles Corridor. There will be more growth in Loudoun, it's likely that areas like Reston, Chantilly, Herndon, etc. will be employing more people.

It's expensive for sure, it's a fairly wealthy and populated county that employs lots of people and has some influence and it's trying to position itself for the future. Even if it were a couple billion over several decades, people would still find a way to rail against it.

by Vik on Nov 2, 2009 4:23 pm • linkreport

Vik - your arguments seem very hollow to me. Fairfax County's traffic studies show that, even with the four rail stations and now more than a billion dollars of road improvements, the transportation network fails -- total gridlock -- if and when Tysons Corner grows to 84 million square feet. That suggests a limit of something less than 84 million square feet. Doesn't it?

If Fairfax County limits development to that level or lower, I would readily agree that the Orange Line extension, etc., cost should NOT be included in the Tysons Corner costs. Are we in agreement now?

But the Task Force and landowners want to build Tysons larger than 84 million aquare feet. Ergo, we need improvements (especially transit) beyond the Tysons Corner area. Those too will be costly, and those costs should be recovered, at least in substantial part, by Tysons development beyond 84 million square feet. Otherwise, everyone else is subsidizing Tysons Corner development. Why should a commercial landlord in Annandale, for example, subsidize the competition in Tysons?

How big should Tysons be? We haven't seen all of the studies yet, including the capacity study for the Silver Line. So I'm not ready to support a specific number of square feet. But two key factors necessary for Tysons to grow much beyond its current 45 million square feet are adding three new interchanges to the Toll Road (at Tysons), expanding the Toll Road to 13 lanes (which will include taking residential and park land), and adding another lane to the Outer Loop between Tysons and I-66 (which also will likely require the acquistion of homes and businesses). If federal (Wolf Trap Park), state and local officials are willing to take these land transfer and acquistion steps, then they should say so now and Tysons can grow to something less than 84 million square feet. If, on the other hand, the National Park Service will not give up part of Wolf Trap and the state/Fairfax County will not be willing to condemn residential and commercial properties, they should say so now and Tysons growth be limited substantially.

The Task Force was and is a joke. It performed no supportable analysis. There will be political repercussions when the total costs are made known.

by Tysons Realist on Nov 3, 2009 9:50 am • linkreport

I'm not against building roads. I understand that with what they're trying to do in Tysons, basically building a city, new road infrastructure is going to be needed. But I don't think you can attribute every road and rail project in northern and western fairfax county to Tysons redevelopment. Those areas will grow regardless over the next several decades and we are already behind in some aspects with road and rail infrastructure. Tysons landowners shouldn't have to subsidize a metro rider in Centreville or Sterling getting to their job in DC either. If you say the costs are indirect or interrelated, fine, that's alright by me, but you should at least be honest about it.

I don't know every detail about the task force although I've kept up somewhat with it. I agree that contingency plans and the like and smart management is needed. I am a cynic about this kind of stuff to an extent, I'm sure there will be a lot of overruns. It may be hard to have everything set up from the outset w/ respect to some of those land acquisitions it seems, I'll just cross my fingers I guess.

by Vik on Nov 3, 2009 10:09 am • linkreport

The Post has really been going downhill as evidenced by bad reporting, poor writing & editing, slews of typos, etc.

@Jasper: Thanks for the explanation--I'd almost forgotten what a newspaper is. I used to be a subscriber, but never got up early enough to fetch it and the Post wouldn't refund my money unless I called before 10am to tell them the paper hadn't been delivered. Bah.

So now I seek out my news online. But not from the WaPo.

by Matthias on Nov 3, 2009 10:45 am • linkreport

Vik - How about allocating the costs for the Orange Line expansion and other "more remote" projects to Tysons Corner based on the relative number of "users" going to, and coming from, Tysons Corner via those facilities? For example, if the number of Orange Line commuters traveling between Tysons and locations served by the extension was 10%, then 10% of the costs should be allocated to Tysons Corner. If it's 30%, then 30% of the costs should be so allocated. These would be substantial, fair and supportable allocations.

Hopefully, we are closer to agreement in our positions.

Virtually everyone wants to see Tysons continue its economic success. Those who build outstanding buildings at Tysons should profit significantly from selling or leasing space. But it makes no sense whatsoever for them to make money on zoning changes when those zoning changes are predicated on the massive increases in infrastructure unless the beneficiaries of the zoning changes make payments for such infrastructure that are fully proportionate to the gains. We need to reward those that expend capital to create tangible assets at Tysons Corner and not those who can game the zoning process.

by Tysons Realist on Nov 3, 2009 11:14 am • linkreport

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