Transit extension to Dulles Airport opens at a difficult time

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CHANTILLY, Va. (AP) — It took 60 years and billions of dollars. A man went to jail for shoddy construction. Now, public transit is finally arriving at Dulles International Airport outside of the nation’s capital.

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

But the expansion comes at a difficult time for Metro. Ridership remains about half of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic in an area where more people continue to work from home than anywhere else in the country. Metro is also struggling to regain public confidence in its safety and reliability after multiple derailments and collisions over the years, including a 2009 accident that killed nine people.

Metro faced enormous obstacles when building the Silver Line, although planners considered a line from the then-rural airport of Dulles to the city when it was built in 1962. Land was even reserved for this purpose.

But the line’s second phase wasn’t eligible for federal money under the cost-benefit analyzes that were conducted, so state and local officials had to cobble together other funding sources. These included taxation of landowners along the line and the steep increase in tolls on the Dulles Turnpike.

Some of the strongest opposition to the Silver Line came from motorists using the turnpike, who bore 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 people not using the subway,” Northern Virginia resident Matt Ondeck said in public comments on a plan to increase to new toll rates in January, from $4.75 to $6.

Battles ensued over labor agreements to build the project and over the location of the airport station. To save money, it was built near an airport car park rather than at the terminal level, requiring a short walk of a few minutes, aided by moving walkways.

Construction began in 2014 and was expected to be completed in 2018. But the project has faced delays and cost overruns, with the final construction price for phase two exceeding $3 billion.

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

Now that it’s built, some wonder if it’s a viable option for commuters and travelers. Driving from the airport to the city’s Metro Center will take approximately 53 minutes; driving from the furthest station, in Ashburn, to Union Station in DC will take 74 minutes.

Metro’s new chief executive, Randy Clarke, said the opening of the Silver Line extension is a chance for the system to reintroduce itself to commuters.

“We are not looking back. We look forward to it,” Clarke said when asked about the difficulties in getting the expansion to work.

Looking ahead, however, Metrorail faces challenges. Traffic, which exceeded 300 million annual trips 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 rail line envisioned in the 1960s meets today’s commuting needs. A September report from the Rockefeller Institute of Government found that 51% of the region’s workforce still telecommutes, compared to a national average of just 29%.

Matt Letourneau, a Loudoun County supervisor who also sits on the subway board, said commuters may soon be ready to return to the subway. Road traffic is starting to pick up and the auto gridlock that once plagued the area could cause people to consider public transport again, especially Tuesday through Thursday, when employers are more likely to demand office work. .

“There’s no doubt things have changed” in terms of commuting habits, Letourneau said. But he said Loudoun County’s land use decisions will only make the Silver Line more attractive in the future as jobs and high-density residential and mixed-use developments grow around the stations.

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

He said people in his district are happy to see the line running, not just for daily commutes, but also for special events and airport access.

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

“International travelers expect to be able to take public transit downtown,” Potter said. “We will have that for them in the future.”

U.S. Representative Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who pushed for the Silver Line for decades when he served as Fairfax County Supervisor in the 1990s, said construction needed to defeat doubters. But he said the long-term view of those who wanted the extension would be justified.

“Doing great things is hard,” he said. “The world is full of naysayers.”

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