Mass transit extension to Dulles Airport opens at tough time

It’s taken 60 years and billions of dollars, but mass transit is finally coming to Dulles International Airport outside the nation’s capital

Matthew Barakat
Saturday 12 November 2022 13:11 GMT

It's taken 60 years and billions of dollars. One man went to prison over shoddy construction. Now, mass transit is finally coming to Dulles International Airport outside the nation's capital.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will open the second and final phase of its Silver Line Metrorail extension on Nov. 15. The six new stations will for the first time connect the airport and the outer suburbs of Loudoun County to the region's flagship mass transit system.

But the extension comes at a tough time for Metro. Ridership remains at roughly half of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic in a region where more people continue to work from home than anywhere else in the country. Metro also is working to regain the public's confidence in its safety and reliability after multiple derailments and collisions over the years, including a 2009 crash that killed nine people.

Metro has faced enormous hurdles in building the Silver Line, although planners envisioned a line connecting the then-rural Dulles airport to the city when it was built in 1962. Land was even set aside for that purpose.

But the second phase of the line didn't qualify for federal money under cost-benefit analyses that were conducted, so state and local officials had to cobble together other funding sources. Those included taxing property owners along the line and sharply increasing tolls on the Dulles Toll Road.

Some of the strongest opposition to the Silver Line has come from motorists who use the toll road and have carried much of the burden of paying for the line's construction.

“Under no circumstances should the cost of the Silver Line be paid for by individuals not using the Metro,” northern Virginia resident Matt Ondeck said in public comments over a plan to again raise toll rates in January, from $4.75 to $6.

Battles ensued over labor deals to construct the project and where the airport station should be. 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 began in 2014 and was supposed to be complete in 2018. But the project faced delays and cost overruns, with the final price for phase two construction exceeding $3 billion.

A contractor failed to mix some of the concrete properly and falsified records to hide the error. One man was sentenced to a year in prison, and Metro will have to apply a special solution to keep the concrete from cracking.

Now that it's built, some question whether it's a viable option for commuters and travelers. Riding from the airport to Metro Center in the city will take an estimated 53 minutes; riding from the farthest station, at Ashburn, to Union Station in D.C. will take 74 minutes.

Metro's new general manager, Randy Clarke, said the opening of the Silver Line extension is a chance for the system to reintroduce itself to commuters.

“We don't look back. We look forward,” Clarke said when asked about the difficulties getting the extension up and running.

Looking forward, though, Metrorail faces challenges. Ridership that exceeded 300 million annual trips before the pandemic now stands at 142 million. Even with the Silver Line, Metro projects ridership to increase only to 235 million by 2025.

Some question whether a rail line that was envisioned in the 1960s fits current commuting needs. A September report from the Rockefeller Institute of Government found that 51% of the region's workforce was still teleworking, compared with a national average of just 29%.

Matt Letourneau, a Loudoun County supervisor who also serves on the Metro board, said commuters may soon be ready to return to Metro. Road traffic is starting to return, and the automotive gridlock that once gripped the region may push people to consider mass transit again, especially Tuesdays through Thursdays, when employers are more likely to require work from the office.

“There's no question things have changed” in terms of commuting patterns, Letourneau said. But he said land-use decisions by Loudoun County will only make the Silver Line more appealing in the future, as jobs and high-density residential and mixed-use development build up around the stations.

“It will start slowly, but over time it's going to build,” he said.

He said people in his district are excited to have the line running — not just for daily commutes but for special events and airport access.

Jack Potter, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs Dulles and Reagan National Airport, said the rail line is a game-changing development for Dulles.

“International travelers expect to be able to take transit to the center city," Potter said. “We'll have that for them going forward.”

U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who pushed for the Silver Line for decades, back to his days as a Fairfax County supervisor in the 1990s, said construction required overcoming skeptics. But he said the long-term vision of those who wanted the extension will be vindicated.

“Doing big things is difficult," he said. “The world is filled with naysayers.”

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