The Dulles Airport Transit Extension opens at a difficult time
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is poised to open the second and final phase of its Silver Line Metrorail expansion on November 15.
CHANTILLY, Virginia – It took 60 years and billions of dollars. A man went to jail for shoddy construction work. Now finally the public transport Dulles International Airport outside the nation’s capital.
That Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority will open the second and final phase of the Silver Line Metrorail expansion on November 15. The six new stations will connect Loudoun County’s airport and outer suburbs with the region’s premier mass transit system for the first time.
But the extension comes at a difficult time for Metro. In a region where more people still work from home than anywhere else in the country, ridership remains at about half of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Metro is also working to regain public confidence in its safety and reliability after several derailments and collisions over the years, including a 2009 crash that killed nine people.
The Metro faced significant hurdles in building the Silver Line, although when it was built in 1962 the planners envisioned a connection between the then rural Dulles Airport and the city. Land was even reserved for this purpose.
But the second phase of the line was ineligible for federal funding based on cost-benefit analyzes conducted, so state and local officials had to cobble together other sources of funding. These included taxing property owners along the route and greatly increasing tolls on the Dulles Toll Road.
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Some of the strongest opposition to the Silver Line has come from motorists who use the toll road and have borne much of the cost of building the line.
“Under no circumstances should the cost of the Silver Line be paid by anyone not using the subway,” said Matt Ondeck of Northern Virginia in public comment on a plan to raise tolls again from $4.75 to $6 in January to increase.
Fighting ensued over labor contracts to build the project and the location of the airport station. To save money, it was built near an airport parking garage rather than at the terminal, requiring a short walk of a few minutes, aided by moving walkways.
Construction work started in 2014 and should be completed in 2018. However, the project faced delays and cost overruns, with the final price to build the second phase exceeding $3 billion.
A contractor mismixed some of the concrete and falsified records to hide the mistake. A man has been sentenced to a year in prison and Metro has to use a special solution to prevent the concrete from cracking.
Now that it’s built, some are wondering if it’s a viable option for commuters and travelers. The journey from the airport to the metro center in the city takes approximately 53 minutes; The journey from the farthest station in Ashburn to Union Station in DC takes 74 minutes.
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Metro’s new general manager Randy Clarkesaid the opening of the Silver Line extension is a chance for the system to reintroduce itself to commuters.
“We don’t look back. We’re looking ahead,” Clarke said when asked about the difficulties of getting the expansion up and running.
However, looking ahead, Metrorail faces challenges. Ridership, which topped 300 million trips a year before the pandemic, now stands at 142 million. Even with the Silver Line, Metro predicts ridership will only increase to 235 million by 2025.
Some wonder if a railway line planned in the 1960s would meet today’s commuting needs. A September report from the Rockefeller Institute of Government found that 51% of the region’s workforce still telecommuted, compared to a national average of just 29%.
Matt Letourneau, a Loudoun County supervisor who also serves on the Metro board of directors, said commuters may soon be ready to return to Metro. Road traffic is beginning to return, and the gridlock that once gripped the region could prompt people to reconsider commuter transport, particularly on Tuesday through Thursday, when employers are more likely to demand work from the office.
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“There is no question that things have changed in terms of pendulum patterns,” Letourneau said. But he said Loudoun County’s land-use decisions will only make the Silver Line more attractive going forward as high-density job and residential and mixed-use developments build up around the stations.
“It will start out slow, but over time it will build up,” he said.
He said people in his area are thrilled that the line is operational — not just for daily commuting, but also for special events and airport access.
Jack Potter, President and CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authoritywhich operates Dulles and Reagan National Airport, said the railroad is a groundbreaking development for Dulles.
“International travelers expect to be able to use transit to go downtown,” Potter said. “We’ll have that for them in the future.”
U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who has been pushing for the Silver Line for decades, dating back to his days as Fairfax County Warden in the 1990s, said construction would require overcoming skeptics. But he said the long-term vision of those who wanted the extension was confirmed.
“Doing great things is difficult,” he said. “The world is full of naysayers.”