Juliana E. Birkhoff, Ph. D.
Conflict Resolution 501
25 November 2013
Individual Analytical Case Study: The Tysons Tunnel Dispute
In 2006, as the long awaited Silver Line metro running from Northern Virginia to Dulles Airport outside Washington DC was in the final bidding stages, a dispute or conflict took place regarding the metro’s construction through the Tysons Corner region. The preferred option, a four-mile tunnel running under the popular, commercial center, was challenged for financial reasons. A less expensive aerial track option was put forward. It was imperative that costs remained low to ensure the project receive a hefty $900 million federal grant from the Federal Transit Authority (FTA). Aerial tracks through Tysons would more easily ensure FTA funding than the original tunnel. However, an elevated track also decreased the likelihood of Tysons Corner developing into a walkable, attractive, downtown region for commercial and residential interests. The question of whether the Silver Line would run through a tunnel or on aerial tracks through Tysons Corner is the conflict that arose between contractors, businesses, private citizens and politicians in 2006 and 2007. First, an overview of the conflict will be given, followed by an analysis, and then conclude with possible avenues that could have resulted in a more satisfactory resolution.
Overview of the Conflict
The plan to build the Silver Line through Tysons Corner originally called for four underground stations connected by a four-mile tunnel under this heavily trafficked and urbanized area of Northern Virginia. However, in 2006, Betchel and Washington Group International, the companies contracted to design the Silver Line, informed the public that the tunnel would need to be replaced with aerial tracks and only a short section of tunnel connecting the Tysons Central 123 and Tysons Central 7 metro stations. This was because the cost of such a long tunnel would be too high and endanger receiving FTA funding (MacGillis, 2006a). Replacing a tunnel with an aerial track was an unattractive option for businesses, politicians, and private citizens of Tysons Corner. Unsightly tracks would decrease property values, reduce the walkability of the buzzing commercial center, and upset traffic in an already congested area.
Following the contractors’ announcement, authorities called for an estimate for building a tunnel using the Large Bore method. This method has been used in Europe to dig tunnels for public transportation systems. The contracting group found no significant difference in cost using Large Bore and concluded that tunneling by either method would add hundreds of millions of dollars more to the project (MacGillis, 2006a). When accused of inflating costs to keep from sharing contracting revenues with other companies, the contractors asserted that a four-mile tunnel under Tysons would add $800 million to the already $2.3 billion needed to fund the first half of the Silver Line (MacGillis, 2006b).
Unsatisfied with conflicting estimates for building the tunnel, Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer appointed an independent advisory panel headed by the American Society of Civil Engineers in May of 2006 to analyze options for the Silver Line through Tysons Corner. In their results, published on 31 July, the Tunnel Review Panel (TRP) concluded that the price difference between a tunnel and an aerial track was much smaller than anticipated by the original contractors. A tunnel through the region would bring the final price to $2.5 billion while an aerial track would amount to $2.25 billion (Buhrman, 2006). These findings, however, were contested by tunnel detractors, asserting that the real increase in cost would, again, be closer to $800 million, endangering the receipt of federal funds (MacGillis, 2006c).
Throughout this period, an impressive coalition of grassroots supporters, small businesses, community associations, private citizens, landowners, and major corporations coalesced into a political action association called TysonsTunnel Inc (TTI). They supported the extension of the Metro Rail system through the Dulles corridor, but “’TysonsTunnel and its supporters believe an elevated railway would be an unacceptable monstrosity’” to the Tysons Corner area (“Tysonstunnel,” 2009). They supported the tunnel as a way to facilitate downtown Tysons becoming a walkable, accessible, vibrant district. Aerial tracks would complicate traffic, reduce the walkability of the area, and decrease property values. Additionally, aerial tracks have half the life span of a tunnel, as well as higher maintenance costs (“Tysonstunnel,” 2009). Additionally, they claimed construction of a tunnel would be less disruptive of traffic than building aerial tracks and the up-front costs of building a tunnel, they claimed, was at most $200 million more (MacGillis, 2006c).
Following the TRP’s independent report, a decision was made by top political figures of whether to build a tunnel or an aerial track through Tysons. On 6 Sept 2006, Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia decided that the tunnel would be the best option, but still chose aerial tracks so as not to endanger losing the FTA’s $900 million federal grant. Those who supported aerial tracks viewed the rising construction costs and harried commuter experiences along the Dulles corridor and supported moving forward with the current proposal instead of seeking out new proposals and competitive bids that would likely not include federal funding (MacGillis, 2006c).
In the aftermath, TTI filed suit against the US Department of Transportation, the FTA, and the Eastern District of Virginia to challenge denying their petition to reconsider a tunnel. They later dropped their suit in 2010. . In March of 2009, the US Transportation Secretary accepted the proposed plan for the Silver Line, awarded the $900 million, and aerial tracks began being built through Tysons Corner.
Map of the Silver Line, with aerial tracks built through Tysons Corner (Lunger, 2010).
Analysis of the Conflict
This conflict over building a tunnel through Tysons Corner or aerial tracks can be analyzed using a few different conflict models, including the Kriesberg five-stage conflict circle and Maire Dugan’s nested conflict model.
In the five-stage conflict circle, a conflict may be tracked through its causes, emergence, dynamics, handling, and outcomes. Causes of a conflict are those things that lead to the manifestation or emergence of differences that are in opposition to one another between parties. The dynamics of a conflict are the methods and avenues the conflict progresses along and handling is what is done to process or resolve the conflict so that an outcome or end state is reached (Kriesberg, 2007). The following summarizes these stages in the Tysons Tunnel dispute:
- Causes The tension between short-term affordability and long-term benefits, as well as disputes over real costs for both the tunnel and aerial tracks, initiated this conflict. Different parties prioritized different options and disagreed on both costs and where funding should come from. Specifically, causes included TysonsTunnel Inc.’s desire to preserve business interests and keep downtown Tysons walkable. The local government supported Tysons’s commercial interests, but prioritized receiving funding from the FTA. The FTA wanted a proposal that fit their cost-effectiveness ratio, which, in the final judgment, precluded the tunnel option. Finally, contractors presumably wanted to maintain their contract to build the Silver Line. These competing interests and priorities were the causes of the Tysons Tunnel dispute.
- Emergence This conflict began to emerge with disputes over accurate estimates for the tunnel vs aerial options. With various opinions, government authorities sought definitive and accurate estimates by neutral consultants. At the same time, businesses and concerned citizens formed a political action group, TTI, to represent their interests.
- Dynamics The dynamics of this conflict remained civil and disputants used established avenues to pursue redress. Local government, business, and consulting groups communicated, they made and met deadlines, and TTI pursued legal options when negotiation broke down.
- Handling Different government structures led out in handling this dispute, using consultations, communication with media, and maintaining a consistent and balanced demeanor. In response, community and business groups also maintained constructive handling of the conflict, entering the conversation through political participation, activism, and eventually the legal system.
- Outcomes The Silver Line began construction after receiving the FTA grant money. However, the tunnel through Tysons had to be traded for aerial tracks to ensure funding.
The Kriesberg conflict model shows how the Tysons Tunnel conflict progressed, from mere differences of opinion in estimates for building a tunnel, through forming political action groups and independent consultations. It also helps elucidate the avenues the conflict followed as well as methods pursued to resolve it to its outcome.
Additionally, the analysis set up by Marie Dugan emphasizes that issues or grievances are never isolated from their context; issues are connected to the larger systems they occur in (see chart below) (Dugan, 1996).
A visualization of how issues are nested inside local contexts and relationships, which then interact within larger systems.
In the Tysons Tunnel dispute, the issue was whether or not the Silver Line through Tysons Corner would be financially feasible as a tunnel or would have to take the form of aerial tracks. This issue connected to the wider circle of the local context and the relationships among the different concerned parties. The metro line going under or over Tysons was important because of the context: Tysons is a growing, semi-urbanized district with interests in continued growth, area walkability, and ensuring increased property values. Aerial tracks would disrupt these interests. However, these aerial tracks met the needs of the contractors and Governor Kaine, who made the final decision in this dispute based on wider systems the issue was operating in. Pricing for materials were quickly expiring and the FTA’s potential funds were in jeopardy. The FTA had set up strict cost-effectiveness ratios, where funding large-works projects was dependent on the measured use-per-cost of the project. This seemingly non-negotiable standard and the lack of seeking or finding other funds, were huge motivators in moving the decision toward aerial tracks. The issue, aerial or a more expensive tunnel, was greatly affected by the context of business interests, and the wider system of funding standards and pricing schedules.
Potential Avenues of Resolution
There are other avenues that could have been explored that may have led to a different or more satisfying conclusion to the Tysons Tunnel dispute. These avenues incorporate mediation and arbitration as tools for understanding and resolving disputes.
Since a key detractor to building a tunnel was fear of losing government funds, an open process where these fears or assumptions could be explored would have better informed decision-making in this conflict. Mediation and arbitration both offer forums where disputants can, with the help of a third party, resolve disputes in more mutually satisfactory ways.
These two avenues, mediation and arbitration, are different. In brief, mediation is where disputants select a neutral third party to facilitate disputants in discussing issues, creating options for resolution, and selecting an option to pursue in a non-binding agreement. Arbitration, on the other hand, follows a similar process but is more restrictive. In arbitration, disputants select a neutral third party and submit to abide by the binding agreement the arbiter reaches. Mediation allows disputants to discuss and craft their own solution while arbitration leaves decision-making powers in the hands of a trusted arbiter and requires disputants to adhere to the arbiter’s decision (Menkel-Meadow, Porter Love & Kupfer Schneider, 2006, 14-15).
In the Tysons Tunnel dispute, mediation would have offered contractors, politicians, businesses, and other stake holders the opportunity to work collaboratively with each other to create more mutually satisfying options. If the FTA was also included at this mediation, it may have been likely that more definitive information on funds could have been provided to ensure the decision between a tunnel and aerial tracks would be made on verifiably accurate information.
Additionally, if a mediation option was followed, disputants would have had to decide if they wanted an evaluative or facilitative mediator. And evaluative mediator is given responsibility to create options and resolutions whereas a facilitative mediator is given much less latitude in the substance of the conversation and instead focuses on guiding and directing the disputants’ conversations into forming productive options on their own (Menkel-Meadow, Porter Love & Kupfer Schneider, 2006). In this dispute, finding an evaluative facilitator with sufficient expertise would have been the best option. However, if parties were unable to agree on an evaluative mediator, a facilitative mediator would have been sufficient for the mediation. The downside of a mediation is that decisions made are not binding and therefore carry only as much weight as disputants give them. In a case involving so many parties with so many types of power (federal, state, and local political power, grassroots organizations, business or capital power, etc) and practices for resolving disputes, having a non-binding agreement may not produce high enough value in the mediation process for parties to spend time in mediation.
Arbitration would have provided another avenue for resolution in the Tysons Tunnel dispute. Disputants would have needed to find a trusted and technically adept arbiter to decide this case. Because the decision is binding, it carries more weight and disputants, once deciding upon using the arbitration process, are more likely to follow the conclusion of the arbiter.
However, arbitration would not be as well suited to the task of improving the resolution process in the Tysons Tunnel dispute because the process Governor Kaine used to decide the dispute was similar to an arbitration. Because the actual decision-making process was similar to an arbitration, where a third party weighs the options and decides on a course of action without the disputants entering into a collaborative process, arbitration would likely have added little value to resolving the Tysons Tunnel dispute in a more amenable way. Governor Kaine, after reviewing all the information available to him from various stake holders and considering priorities, decided on aerial tracks. A professional arbiter would have reviewed similar arguments and information, possibly with a little more technical expertise, and rendered a decision based on available information and priorities. For the Tysons Tunnel dispute, a mediation would have offered a creative, collaborative, option-inventing process that an arbitration could not provide. Additionally, the process mediation provides creates ownership as parties have a say in how options are invented. This buy-in increases the likelihood parties will agree on the final resolution, whatever it may be, because they themselves are more likely to be convinced it is the best option.
In conclusion, the Tysons Tunnel dispute was a conflict of comparatively short duration over whether the Silver Line metro would pass above or below the Tysons Corner area of Northern Virginia. It involved contractors, politicians, federal administrations, businesses, and citizens. Funding and pricing became key motivators in moving the conflict toward a conclusion through independent consultation, communication, and media coverage. The less attractive, but less expensive aerial track option was chosen. However, a collaborative, mediative approach may have succeeded in producing a more amenable resolution to this dispute for all parties involved.
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(A) MacGillis, A. (2006, March 24). Cost dooms metro plan for tunnel at tysons. Washington Post. Retrieved from Cost Dooms Metro Plan For Tunnel At Tysons
(B) MacGillis, A. (2006, April 26). Tunnel back on table for dulles rail. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/25/AR2006042502105.html
(C) MacGillis, A. (2006, May 16). Tunnel decision delayed 2 months. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/15/AR2006051501712.html
Menkel-Meadow, C., Porter Love, L., & Kupfer Schneider, A. (2006). Mediation: Practice, policy, and ethics. New York City: Aspen Publishers.
Tysonstunnel. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.tysonstunnel.org/index2.htm