The mood was festive as politicians and fans of all things transit gathered in Reston for the much-anticipated opening of the Metro’s Silver Line. The white tent where the official program was to take place was crammed so full that latecomers — or those without the right connections — were pushed to overflow seating.
The largest infrastructure project ever built in the Washington region was more than a year late and more than $100 million over budget. But on July 26, 2014, all of that was forgotten. As the first Silver Line train pulled out of Wiehle-Reston East station, there were cheers and smiles.
But the celebration would be short-lived. To make room for the line, Metro reduced service on the Blue Line, angering thousands of riders. New rail cars set to arrive before the line opened did not — leaving fewer trains in reserve when older cars broke down. The result? Worsening service disruptions systemwide. Adding to Metro’s woes, ridership was well below projections.
Some began to grumble that the line should never have been built.
Then came the deadly January 2015 Yellow Line smoke incident, followed by a series of chronic service disruptions and safety lapses that led to the rail system being placed under federal oversight. The worsening service led to declining ridership.
Metro blamed the chronic breakdowns on its inability to keep up with much-needed maintenance that had been neglected for years and said it needed more money to catch up. Some observers — and Metro to a degree — blamed the Silver Line, saying the new line placed too much of a burden on the system’s infrastructure. Some riders and others argued that the transit agency should have invested in rebuilding instead of expanding.
“To add to a system that was very widely understood to be failing due to a lack of maintenance as well as a failure of organizational culture, to expand and put more strains on it is beyond idiotic,” said Thomas Rubin, a longtime transportation consultant, who has been critical of rail projects as a solution for congestion. “The new line still has to operate through the old system.”
But does the Silver Line deserve the blame?
“The reality is that it’s just not that straightforward,” said Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank.
Even if the Silver Line had never been built, Metro probably would be facing the same problems it is scrambling to fix today, Puentes said.
First, many in the region misunderstand how the line was being built and funded.
Metro is not paying for construction of the 23.1-mile line in Northern Virginia; it is being financed through a combination of federal, state and local funds raised in part through special taxing districts. Dulles Toll Road users are paying for more than 70 percent of the project’s $5.8 billion cost.
The Silver Line “seems like an obvious target, but you have to look under the hood of this issue,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a transit advocacy group. “There were entirely different funding streams for the Silver Line.”
The Silver Line extension, which is being built in two phases, is the first new line to be added to the Metro system since the Green Line opened in 1991. The first phase, opened in July 2014, has five stations, one in Reston and four in Tysons. The rail line’s second phase has six stations, including one at Dulles International Airport, and will for the first time extend Metro service into Loudoun County. It is expected to open for passenger service in 2020.
Construction of the rail line is being managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Once completed, each phase is handed over to Metro, which then assumes responsibility for maintenance and operations. Metro officials’ only involvement in the construction is working with contractors to ensure that the line, once completed, meets its standards and will work seamlessly with the system.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who as chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors was among the rail project’s biggest backers, said if anything, blaming the Silver Line is a convenient excuse for those within Metro who have allowed the system to decline over the years.
That is not to say there weren’t additional costs associated with its opening and operation. Metro hired 461 people and trained 88 train operators and 74 station managers when the first phase opened in 2014, and budgeted $50 million to operate it that fiscal year. In 2015, the Silver Line’s first full year of operation, those costs increased to $55 million. But that money came from the transit agency’s operating budget, which in 2015 was roughly $1.7 billion, the bulk of which came from state and local funds. Operating budget money does just that — covers daily operations — as opposed to the capital budget, which pays for things such as rebuilding infrastructure.
Metro refused to make any of its staff or executives available to discuss or answer questions about the line, offering only a link to an online timeline and a notation that the choice to build the Silver Line was a regional decision.
Rubin, the Silver Line critic, said the push to build the extension despite warning signs highlights a fundamental problem plaguing efforts to restore the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
“We can get money to expand, but we can’t get money to maintain,” he said.
That is a dynamic that Bob Chase, president emeritus of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, remembers well.
Chase recalls that as details of the line were being hashed out, there was constant tension between a Metro management that “saw the need to rebuild and maintain what it had and public officials that wanted to expand Metro and get it to Tysons.”
The bottom line, he said: “I don’t think the Silver Line was driven by Metro. I think it was driven by local officials.”
Virginia leaders said the line was critical to economic development in the Dulles corridor and would connect Dulles International Airport with the District’s downtown. Many have noted that Dulles is one of the few major airports that does not have a rail connection. The Silver Line also connects another important economic center — Tysons — to the rest of the region.
The Silver Line “was a critical piece missing from the original investment,” said Connolly, who served 14 years on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, including five as chairman. He also served as chairman of the board of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.
“The region is not the same as it was when we opened Metro” 40 years ago, Connolly said. “Economic growth has shifted toward Northern Virginia — and we have to have supportive infrastructure.”
But perhaps the one aspect that Silver Line critics point to most often — particularly Blue Line riders, who have seen their service cut since it opened — is ridership, which has fallen short of projections.
Wiehle-Reston East — the outermost station — has met projections, including drawing some riders who previously rode the crowded Orange Line. The Tysons Corner station, with its direct connection to Tysons Corner Center mall, has done reasonably well. But overall, according to ridership figures released by Metro on the line’s one-year anniversary in July 2015, the average 17,000 weekday boardings is far short of the 25,000 the line was projected to have after its first year.
In comparison, when Metro extended the Green Line and opened five new stations on its southern end in 2001 — Congress Heights, Southern Avenue, Naylor Road, Suitland and Branch Avenue — ridership overshot projections, leading to crowded platforms and packed trains. The situation was exacerbated by a shortage of rail cars.
Projections were that the new Green Line stations would generate 18,000 new passengers after six months of service; ridership on just the second day of operation was more than 19,500.
Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said while Silver Line ridership has not materialized, the economic benefits of the expansion are already apparent.
“I don’t pick up any regret among property owners and people who have been contributing to the expansion of Metro with special tax districts,” Bulova (D) said. “They know there’s going to be future benefit.”
Some say Metro added to its own problems by not fully grasping the impact and difficulty of integrating the Silver Line into the existing system. Nor did transit agency officials prepare riders, they say.
“I think they didn’t do a fully adequate job of explaining [the impact] to the public,” said Mortimer Downey, a former Metro board member and chairman.
For example, controllers in Metro’s operation center have experienced difficulty moving all the trains they need because of congestion at some rail junctions — particularly at Rosslyn, where the Silver, Orange and Blue lines come together before moving through an underwater tunnel into the District. It is similar to what motorists experience at heavily used interchanges on the Capital Beltway.
“It is difficult to determine how long it takes for riders to react, or by how much, but rail reliability began to decrease for customers around the time of the Silver Line launch, turning down particularly since May 2015,” Metro staff wrote in a report to the board in February of this year.
Around that time, Metro’s managers also acknowledged that the launch of the new rail line “stressed” the agency’s ability to deploy an adequate number of rail cars each day. Officials had hoped to have 64 of the new 7000-series cars online by the time the Silver Line opened, but production was delayed by a 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan, where the cars were being built.
Metro officials also conceded that they could not maintain the service levels they had committed to before the Silver Line opened.
Despite the problems, Connolly chafes at assertions that the region would be better off without the line.
Long term, the congressman said, adding stations in Tysons helps guarantee that Fairfax County will remain an active partner in paying for the line’s maintenance and upkeep. That is because Metro is funded, in part, by subsidies from the jurisdictions it serves.
He also noted the extension into Loudoun County means officials there also will contribute to funding to the system.
“The choice [to not build] says we can never improve on or expand Metro’s reach,” Connolly said. “That is a recipe for utter gridlock and economic decline. We have to do both. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Photo courtesy of Amanda Voisard/Washington Post