De­spite Sil­ver Line’s rid­er­ship strug­gles, back­ers’ con­fi­dence is un­shaken

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LORI ARATANI

Three years af­ter its splashy open­ing, the first phase of Metro’s Sil­ver Line has met with mixed suc­cess, fu­el­ing an un­prece­dented build­ing boom in ar­eas ad­ja­cent to its five new sta­tions but strug­gling to at­tract rid­ers.

Since 2014, 11 new high-rises have been built in Tysons Cor­ner, and more than 2 mil­lion more square feet of de­vel­op­ment is in the pipe­line. Big-name com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing In­tel­sat, have re­lo­cated to Tysons, at­tracted by the prom­ise of a walk­a­ble ur­ban neigh­bor­hood with easy ac­cess to pub­lic trans­porta­tion.

But of the five sta­tions that opened in July 2014, only the end-of-line Wiehle-Reston sta­tion has come close to pro­jected rid­er­ship. At three stops in Tysons — McLean, Greens­boro and Spring Hill — rid­er­ship is a mere frac­tion of what plan­ners pro­jected in a 2004 en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact re­port.

In May of this year, for ex­am­ple, av­er­age daily week­day rid­er­ship was 1,618 at the McLean sta­tion, slightly be­low the 1,634 in May 2015 and well be­low the 3,803 the Sil­ver Line was pro­jected to serve in its first year of op­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to the 2004 re­port.

To be fair, rid­er­ship of the Metro sys­tem as a whole is down. Be­tween July and De­cem­ber of last year, over­all rid­er­ship dropped 12 per­cent. Metro of­fi­cials say chronic ser­vice dis­rup­tions and SafeTrack, an am­bi­tious main­te­nance pro­gram that shut all or parts of the 40-plus-year-old sys­tem for the past year, have con­trib­uted to the de­cline.

Boost­ers of the rail line, how­ever, say it is still too early to write off the Sil­ver Line, as­sert­ing that as more de­vel­op­ments are built near the sta­tions, rid­er­ship will grow.

“I can’t stress enough that rid­er­ship is a prod­uct of land use,” said Shyam Kan­nan, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of plan­ning at Metro. He said that the rid­er­ship pro­jec­tions came at a time when the econ­omy was boom­ing and were based on “heroic as­sump­tions” about how quickly de­vel­op­ment would take place around the five new sta­tions. These as­sump­tions failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize, he said, be­cause of a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors, in­clud­ing the 2008 re­ces­sion, 2013 global eco­nomic col­lapse and, closer to home, se­ques­tra­tion and cuts to the de­fense bud­get. Those fac­tors cooled the ap­petite for new con­struc­tion.

“The good news is that things did un­freeze,” said Kan­nan. “If you head out to Wiehle, you’ll see noth­ing but con­struc­tion cranes. All of that por­tends many thou­sands of trips on Metro.”

Orig­i­nally con­ceived in the 1960s, the $5.8 bil­lion rail project is one of the largest in­fra­struc­ture projects cur­rently un­der­way in the United States.

The 23.1-mile rail line is be­ing built in two phases. Con­struc­tion of the first phase, four sta­tions in Tysons Cor­ner and one in Reston, be­gan in 2009 and was fin­ished in 2014. Con­struc­tion of the six sta­tions in the project’s sec­ond phase, in­clud­ing one at Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port and two in Loudoun County, is un­der­way. It is ex­pected to open for pas­sen­ger ser­vice in 2020.

Since 2014, when pre­lim­i­nary con­struc­tion on Phase 2 be­gan, reg­u­lar users of the toll road have prob­a­bly no­ticed new sta­tions tak­ing shape along that road and the Dulles Green­way.

On a re­cent day, crews at the Dulles Air­port sta­tion were mak­ing prepa­ra­tions for the com­ing days when they’ll in­stall the es­ca­la­tors that will whisk pas­sen­gers from the above­ground plat­form to the mez­za­nine be­low, where they’ll head to the air­port’s iconic ter­mi­nal to catch their flights. In the mid­dle of the space, frames for four el­e­va­tors cut through the ceil­ing to the pas­sen­ger plat­form.

A bank of win­dows en­sures that the area will be filled with nat­u­ral light.

“This is go­ing to be a nice area,” Matt El­lis, se­nior su­per­in­ten­dent for the Dulles sta­tion, said as he pointed to the win­dows and de­tailed some of the fin­ishes that will be part of the fi­nal de­sign.

Of the six sta­tions, In­no­va­tion Cen­ter sta­tion in Hern­don is the fur­thest along. Crews have al­ready be­gun lay­ing some track on the out­bound por­tion of the sta­tion. In a va­cant par­cel on the sta­tion’s south­ern side sit por­tions of the pedes­trian bridges that, once as­sem­bled and set in place, will carry rid­ers across the busy toll road to the sta­tion’s en­trance.

The Sil­ver Line is be­ing fi­nanced through a com­bi­na­tion of lo­cal, state and fed­eral dol­lars as well as spe­cial tax­ing dis­tricts. But the bulk of the project’s ex­penses will be paid for by rev­enue from driv­ers who use the Dulles Toll Road — an el­e­ment of the fi­nanc­ing pack­age that has an­gered those who ar­gue that driv­ers shouldn’t have to pay for the rail line.

Tammi Petrine of Reston is among those who have ques­tioned the ne­ces­sity of the project and whether users of the toll road should be the ones pay­ing most of the cost. Three years out, she still has her doubts.

“I’m just not sure this huge ex­pense of this heavy rail makes sense,” said Petrine, a long­time com­mu­nity ac­tivist and co-chair of Reston 2020, a group ded­i­cated to pre­serv­ing the ideals on which Reston was founded.

Sharon Bulova (D), chair­man of the Fair­fax County Board of Su­per­vi­sors, said that as more of the planned of­fice, res­i­den­tial and re­tail de­vel­op­ments come on line, she ex­pects rid­er­ship to in­crease. Bulova and oth­ers view the Sil­ver Line as crit­i­cal to their ef­fort to re­make Tysons Cor­ner into a walk­a­ble ur­ban oa­sis where hav­ing a car is op­tional.

“I’m pleased with the ex­ten­sion of the Sil­ver Line into Tysons and into Reston,” Bulova said re­cently. “There has been a real recog­ni­tion of the value of tran­sit and rail.”

The project could also fuel a build­ing boom at Metro sta­tions in nearby Loudoun County, long known as a bed­room com­mu­nity where hav­ing a car is a ne­ces­sity. County of­fi­cials say the ar­rival of the Sil­ver Line will change that dy­namic and at­tract those who pre­fer to ride rather than drive.

At the Ash­burn sta­tion, for ex­am­ple, of­fi­cials are con­tem­plat­ing plans by de­vel­op­ers who want to build more than 2 mil­lion square feet of of­fice space and more than 12,000 new res­i­den­tial units.

“This will change the char­ac­ter of Loudoun,” said Phyl­lis J. Ran­dall (D-At Large), chair­woman of the Loudoun County Board of Su­per­vi­sors. She said that Loudoun will be unique among com­mu­ni­ties be­cause it will be able to of­fer ur­ban, sub­ur­ban and ru­ral liv­ing op­tions to res­i­dents. The mix is also prov­ing at­trac­tive to busi­nesses.

“When I’ve talked to our de­vel­op­ment de­part­ment, I’ve heard that a lot of busi­nesses and cor­po­ra­tions are look­ing to move to the area and are con­sid­er­ing Loudoun be­cause we will have the Sil­ver Line.”

Even with the build­ing boom, Fair­fax’s Bulova con­cedes that rid­er­ship growth also will de­pend on the health of the sys­tem as a whole and whether tran­sit agency of­fi­cials are suc­cess­ful in their cam­paign to se­cure a sig­nif­i­cant source of ded­i­cated fund­ing to help pay for main­te­nance and mod­ern­iza­tion needs.

In many ways, con­cerns about the Sil­ver Line’s lack­lus­ter per­for­mance have largely been over­shad­owed by broader ques­tions about the health of the over­all Metro sys­tem.

Just six months af­ter the new rail line opened, a Yel­low Line train full of pas­sen­gers stalled in a tun­nel and filled with smoke. One pas­sen­ger died, and more than 80 oth­ers were sick­ened.

In the months that fol­lowed, in­ves­ti­ga­tors and fed­eral in­spec­tors un­cov­ered myr­iad safety vi­o­la­tions and in­stances in which in­spec­tors ap­peared to have fal­si­fied their re­ports. Even­tu­ally, fed­eral of­fi­cials in­ter­vened, tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for over­see­ing the safety of the tran­sit agency’s rail sys­tem — a tem­po­rary ar­range­ment but one that con­tin­ues to­day.

Metro’s strug­gles to main­tain its cur­rent sys­tem led some to ques­tion whether the Sil­ver Line should have been built in the first place. One Metro board mem­ber even sug­gested scrap­ping the sec­ond phase. But oth­ers say that crit­i­cism is short­sighted.

“We’re mak­ing a long-term in­vest­ment in the re­gion’s fu­ture,” said Ste­wart Schwartz, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the pro-tran­sit Coali­tion for Smarter Growth. “It has been ab­so­lutely worth the in­vest­ment for North­ern Vir­ginia.”

Metro of­fi­cials are op­ti­mistic that some of the same prob­lems — such as a short­age of rail cars, which strained Metro’s ex­ist­ing sys­tem — will be re­solved by the time the sec­ond phase opens in 2020. And be­cause this por­tion of the rail line is brand new, it will al­ready have the up­graded in­fra­struc­ture — power sys­tems, tracks — in place.

As for the dol­lars to main­tain the cur­rent and ex­panded sys­tem, Bulova hopes that an agree­ment can be reached.

“Cer­tainly, my in­ten­tion is that when we cut the rib­bon in [2020], that we have a fund­ing plan in place to keep the sys­tem — the en­tire sys­tem — in a state of good re­pair,” she said.

“If you head out to [the Wiehle sta­tion site], you’ll see noth­ing but con­struc­tion cranes. All of that por­tends many thou­sands of trips on Metro.” Shyam Kan­nan, Metro’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of plan­ning

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A plane heads for a land­ing at Wash­ing­ton Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port near where work­ers are build­ing Phase 2 of the Sil­ver Line.

SARAH VOISIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

At the Wiehle-Reston East Metro sta­tion in Reston in 2014, pen­nants cel­e­brated the open­ing of the Sil­ver Line’s first phase.

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