Silver Line Faces ‘Daunting Issues’

Silver Line Faces ‘Daunting Issues’

Challenges planners face before cars get rolling.

In August, 2013, 55 years after construction began on the Dulles International Airport, the first phase of a $7 billion Metrorail connection between Washington, D.C. and Dulles will be completed that will extend rail travel to five stops in Tysons Corner and Reston.

As Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance said gazing out his window at a giant part of the rail construction in Tysons Corner, “It’s not a vision. It’s here and now, the question is how to make it work.” After nearly two decades of often acrimonious debate and “perils of Pauline” like stops and starts of the Dulles Metrorail project, the new Metro line, dubbed the Silver Line, will start running in early 2014, serving five new stations beyond West Falls Church.

It joins the second-busiest rapid transit system in the United States in passenger trips, after the New York City Subway. In 2008, for instance, Metro made 215.3 million trips or 727,684 trips per weekday. But it is a Metro system which must make vast upgrades to improve tracks and other safety systems after a horrendous accident in 2009 killed 29 people. Investigation disclosed that Metro had failed to take many steps mandated for safety and there was an absence of a “safety culture” at Metro.

For the planners at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, getting the cars rolling means sorting out some daunting issues:

  • Ridership—How many people will ride the Silver Line initially and how many will ride it as the years go forward is a moving target. Metro officials estimated in February 2012 that they could anticipate about 9 million passenger trips a year, plus about 5.4 million passenger trips that would shift from existing lines to the Silver Line. But it will take years, they said, before the Silver Line grows enough to match the 70 percent cost recovery rate from fares that exist on the rest of the system. Catherine Hudgins, chair of the WMATA Board of Directors (and Democratic county supervisor representing the Hunter Mill District), said she anticipates ridership to be higher.
  • Stations—The Tysons Corner redevelopment plans envision a city of 100,000 residents with 200,000 visitors and workers arriving daily by 2040. The plan is to make Tysons Corner a pedestrian friendly community so only one of the five Metro stops will have a parking garage, with a capacity of 2,300 cars. But the 2010 census found 19,267 residents in Tysons and Bob Chase and others wonder whether drivers from outlying areas will flock to the stops in the years before the population increases.
  • Rosslyn Bottleneck—The Orange Line is Metro’s second busiest and carries approximately 180,000 passenger trips on a typical weekday. It will share part of its route with the Silver Line. It enters Washington through a tunnel between Rosslyn Virginia and the Foggy Bottom area of Washington, but during rush hours the tunnel is at capacity with 26 trains in each direction at peak hours and there would be no room for Silver Line trains that would use the same tunnel. The Potomac crossing is already too crowded to accommodate sufficient Blue Line and Orange Line trains during the rush hours. Orange Line trains are so crowded that it is called “Orange Crush.”
  • Train Rerouting—June 18, 2012, Metro began “Rush Plus,” rerouting three Blue Line trains in peak hours each way over the Fenwick bridge that the Yellow Line uses to reach Washington. This means those Blue Line passengers for stations like Foggy Bottom and Farragut West would have to back track. But the change will benefit 46,000 Orange Line passengers during peak hours, according to a Metro news release.
  • Tunnels—There have been myriad suggestions on how to deal with this problem from building a new tunnel across the Potomac to building one for trains from the west to couple with the Blue Line track near Reagan National Airport. But none of these solutions are in the near term of budgetary possibilities.
  • Eight Car Trains—The priority solution under study now according to Metro General Manager Richard Sarles in an address to the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance earlier this year is to run eight car trains with larger passenger capacity. Sarles said however that Metro does not have sufficient power to move those larger cars and the cost of upgrading the power system would be $1.5 billion. On Nov. 29, 2012, the Washington Post reported that Metro officials are worried that Silver Line trains will not be able to make a turn around at the stadium station in Washington and will have to go five additional stops to Largo, Md. at a cost of $4.5 million a year.
  • Metro Cars—Metro’s fleet consists of some 1,126 rail cars, but many are of an older series 1000 and are a safety hazard. Metro has on order a 7000 series car that is larger, with larger passenger capacity and of that model has signed a contract for 428 new cars to serve the Silver Line.
  • Operating Costs—Metro has estimated that it will costs between $20 million and $45 million during the first three years of operation (2013, 2014, 2015) to recruit and train personnel.