Finding the Funding for Metro to Dulles Airport

Dulles Metro Rail Map

» Though construction of the first phase of the Silver Line is already underway, the second part of the project has yet to be fully financed.

Earlier this year, transportation officials in Northern Virginia obtained a full funding grant agreement from the Federal Transit Administration for the first phase of the Silver Line metro rail extension project. Local and state monetary commitments for that stage of the project are entirely guaranteed. But the second phase of the line, which would bring rail to Dulles Airport for the first time, lacks $330 million in local property tax revenues required for the construction of three stations in Fairfax County.

The 12-mile first phase of the Silver Line extends west from the existing Orange Line at East Falls Church into the depths of suburban Fairfax County, which houses over a million people. At the other end, it will run alongside the Orange Line through Arlington and the District of Columbia to Stadium-Armory, where it will terminate. Five new stations will be constructed, four of which will be closely spaced in the core of Tysons Corner, America’s most emblematic edge city and one of the country’s largest business districts. Fairfax County hopes to take advantage of the addition of metro service to refashion the district in the mode of urban Arlington, though those plans have been recently partially dashed by a reluctant county board. Nonetheless, when it opens in 2013, metro could prove an exciting addition to the landscape of this section of the state and it would undoubtedly induce a large number of the area’s inhabitants to switch to transit.

Even so, the Silver Line’s construction has always been defended as a new way to get travelers to Dulles Airport (thus the “Dulles Metro” nickname), but a station there is only planned for the project’s second phase, which could open for operations in 2016 at the earliest. The 11-mile extension would run past Reston and Herndon, under the airport, and into exurban Loudoun County. The last station at Virginia Route 772 will be the most distant from downtown D.C. of the entire metro rail network.

In order to pay for the second phase, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs the project in addition to Dulles Airport, has proposed a special tax district in the areas along the line’s route. Local property owners would agree to pay extra in order to benefit from future metro service — a similar tax regime has been put into place in the neighborhoods surrounding the first phase of the line. The Airports Authority has suggested that without the revenue from the district, it would be unable to build stations between Wiehle Avenue and Dulles Airport, leaving Reston and Herndon effectively out in the cold. But efforts to tax landowners have missed their previously fixed deadline, potentially delaying those stations and even the whole project.

The Silver Line has other problems, as well. The Airports Authority has not been clear in its support for the project. Recently, it has proposed transferring funds from the Dulles Toll Road (which it also operates) to pay for the widening of Route 606 in Loudoun County. That money ought to be going to build the metro line.

On the other hand, apart from the long-planned segment that will connect metro through Tysons Corner, it could be argued that the Silver Line is a bad idea altogether. It is one of the most expensive transit projects in the United States in terms of cost per projected rider or mile-cost per projected rider. Its alignment, entirely in the median of the Dulles Toll Road with the exception of at Dulles Airport or in Tysons Corner, is less than ideal. It will promote sprawl in Loudoun County. It will be a huge strain on the metro tunnel under the Potomac River — and it comes without the future promise of a new and needed trunk line through downtown Washington. All in all, its benefits should be in question.

Nonetheless, if the Silver Line is built, the stops between Wiehle Avenue and Dulles should be included, especially since places like Reston are becoming increasingly urban and deserve better transit connections with the rest of the region. Let the self-imposed taxation begin!

24 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Huricano

    Could you expound on the “trunk line”? Maybe with a map?

  • jim

    I never liked the Silver Line concept. I would have much preferred commuter rail access to Dulles: build a greenfield line south from Dulles meeting the NS B-line and then run along the VRE Manassas Line route stopping at Alexandria and Crystal City (which both have hotel concentrations) and Washington Union Station. It would have been cheaper and faster to build, quicker to travel and would have accelerated VRE service to Gainesville. But everyone loves Metro.

    There is certainly an argument for stopping the Silver Line at Wiehle Ave. (which does provide Metro access to Reston) or for just continuing it from Wiehle Ave. to Dulles (and no further) with no stations in between. I don’t know that Herndon needs Metro. I’m fairly sure that Ashburn doesn’t. Losing three stations between Dulles and Wiehle Ave. speeds up the trip to/from Dulles by some amount, which has to be good from the point of view of the air traveler. I assume someone did some ridership modeling that shows these stations generating trips, but I can’t myself imagine a station at Route 28 getting much patronage.

    So I won’t be saddened if Phase II gets severely truncated.

  • NikolasM

    Reston is a perfectly reasonable station, though I would have much preferred that it follow the W&OD trail from where it intersects the toll road so it could stop much closer to the Reston Town Center and then bend south to hit the Herndon Park and Ride, which is already there with a huge parking garage and ready for a Metro station. What I suspect will happen after the Silver line is built is that it will become increasingly obvious that the Blue/Orange/Silver lines going through the Rosslyn tunnel and through DC will be well over capacity and/or a major restraint on the overall potential of the system and a new Blue line through the city will need to be constructed, this one going through Georgetown, perhaps hitting Union Station and meeting its eastern leg again at Stadium Armory.

  • John

    I’d say the bigger priority here is to get Metro into Tysons Corner — a car-choked, pseudo-suburb. There are a lot of jobs out there that could use access to the region’s core.

    IMO, service to the airport may be better accomplished by bus service from Wiehle Ave via the Dulles Access road. There’s too little development along the highway corridor to justify heavy rail.

  • Huricano -
    The new downtown D.C. line would be a separate blue line running from Rosslyn, under the Potomac, through upper downtown, and reconnecting to the existing Blue Line on the other side of the Anacostia at River Terrace. It’s best described by David Alpert over at Greater Greater Washington.

  • Ben Ross

    Separating the Blue Line from the Orange Line in D.C. is only one of several possible solutions to the future overcrowding of the Metro’s Potomac River crossings and its tunnels in downtown D,C, It is also the most expensive.

    A second option is to separate the Green Line from the Yellow Line. Blue Line and Yellow Line would share the existing Potomac bridge, freeing up capacity for the Silver Line by removing the Blue Line from the Potomac tunnel. A new Yellow Line tunnel would go from the bridge to Union Station. (Any new downtown line must also serve Union Station – future growth in commuter rail traffic will overload the existing Red Line station and track capacity.)

    A third option is to separate the Blue Line from the Yellow Line in Virginia. The Blue Line would cross the Yellow Line and proceed over the Wilson Bridge, which is engineered to carry 8-car Metrorail trains. It would then proceed by some route to Union Station, opening up new vistas for future transit-oriented development where it is most needed.

    The last two options would require some new connection between Rosslyn and Pentagon. Possibly, the existing tracks could be converted to light rail service as an extension of lines along Columbia Pike or toward Alexandria.

    WMATA has begun a core capacity study which will surely look at all of these options as well as others.

  • John

    I don’t know anything about the DC area, but this extension sounds like the worst idea ever… it would be sort of nice if the feds would buy some other city a nice subway train for a change.

  • I’m torn on this one. On one hand it is an embarrassment to not have a rail link from our nation’s capital to the airport. I mean what would visitors coming from other developed nations think? On the other hand, there is many heavy rail projects nationwide that would bring a lot more benefits per dollar. The design while not the best doesn’t seem that awful. I mean it goes into the most densely populated are of Tyson’s Corner and uses the cheapest ROW in areas that won’t have enough riders to justify the cost of acquiring land through eminent domain. The only thing that doesn’t make sense to me is to go past the airport into a not very populated area. Shame they don’t increase capacity downtown and thereby encourage infill development. Seems like WMATA is controlled by the suburbs just like SEPTA. Also I don’t understand why the Purple Line would be built with a different technology then the Metro? Is it due to cost reasons?

  • Visitors from other nations don’t go to DC, unless they have an urge to see the White House. They go to New York and Los Angeles.

    The problem isn’t just that WMATA is controlled by the suburbs. It’s that American transit agencies in general tend to think in terms of how far out the network extends rather than in terms of how much coverage there is in the central areas. Los Angeles and San Francisco have the exact same problems, and even Chicago and New York don’t focus on the existing urban areas nearly as much as they should.

  • Future Schema

    I will preface my comments for the purposes of disclosure by saying that I live in Northern Virginia and I have worked for a number of years in Tysons Corner and along the Blue Line in Arlington.

    The Silver Line extension is not perfect and has been an exercise in compromises since we began on this journey several years ago. It needs to run through Tysons Corner, where it will service not only a large business district, but one of the largest shopping malls in the country in terms of square footage and sales per square foot. Fairfax County is changing its zoning to encourage more dense development along the Metro corridor. The issues with the County Board have been wrapped around the secondary planning issues tied to the density of the development.

    Should it go to Dulles Airport and should there be stations at Herndon and Reston? You bet. The bulk of the people coming to working Tysons Corner are coming from these areas and from Loudon County. The Dulles Toll Road is a parking lot every morning and afternoon with people driving in from these areas. The Silver Line is less about bringing folks into DC as it is bringing folks into Tysons Corner.

    The Silver Line is a great example of how much it costs financially, socially and politically to put in transit after areas have already developed. We will continue paying this high price until we learn to do transit and development together.

  • AlexB

    The fact that the Silver Line is one of the most expensive projects in the US is indicative of the US having too few ambitious projects. Even though airport connectors probably don’t bring the same level of ridership as a subway through a dense residential neighborhood, a transport network should link the major transportation nodes of a city on principle, even if the airport portion has to be subsidized more than other parts. Tysons Corner is a huge business center certainly worthy of a metro of its own. This entire project is worthwhile.

    The problem here is that all cities in the US should have a dense network of rail lines that thoroughly cover the inner city AND extend deep into the suburbs. Almost everyone should be able to commute by train and almost everyone in a city center should be able to live their lives comfortably without a car. DC currently has a bit of both, but is only concerned with outward expansion at the moment.

    That being said, DC’s system is at capacity at the core, and they will have to start planning soon for what will most likely be a brand new expensive tunnel through the city center. This is true for the BART as well. Extensions are no longer feasible without core capacity improvements and we will eventually get our wish for another line through central DC. M street subway?

  • The bulk of the people coming to working Tysons Corner are coming from these areas and from Loudon County.

    Yes, the bulk of people living in NoVa live in sprawling exurbs. There’s no reason Metro should encourage that, instead of promoting infill development in DC proper and its inner suburbs. A Dulles-Tysons line would suffer from the same problems as BART: it would be glorified commuter rail, serving only people who commute in the peak direction to one destination.

  • egk

    The saddest thing is that the Silver line uses Metro’s tried and true ‘no express’ design, when with a few extra miles of track and a couple of passing tracks there could be express trains to Dulles AND local service to Tysons and Loudon (sharing mostly the same infrastructure.

  • Tried and true? Why, is there any metro system outside Tokyo that runs local and express trains on the same set of tracks? Or any metro system outside Tokyo, New York, and Seoul that runs local and express trains at all?

  • AlexB

    Most cities divide their express and local services into local and more commuter oriented services, such as the Paris Metro and the RER. When you think about it, the Rockaway branches on the A should have just continued to be LIRR and use the Rockaway cutoff, with a transfer to the A somewhere. I am sure they would be much happier now. But that has nothing to do with the Silver Line.

    Looking at google maps, it seems like you would have to build about 4 miles of mostly elevated track on I-66 to bypass 4 stops. I am not sure the extra couple minutes everyone would save would be worth the that expense. Is the DC metro big enough to justify express-local type service? Are there that many stops to skip? It does connect to MARC and the VRE at various points that could provide express type service to Union Station. I am reminded of Baltimore’s proposal to build a sort of metro-esque type service into its commuter train system that would connect with light rail expansions.

  • Woody

    AlexB says,

    So true. The biggest reasons, of course, are the small pot of money from Congress and the effective per-project cap.

    On the huge projects like the LIRR’s East Side Access or the Second Avenue Subway, or even Pittsburgh’s tunnel under the Allegheny River iirc, the federal share tops out well under the 80% standard for highways projects. So spending $12 or $15 billion for Boston’s Big Dig roadway, that’s no problem, but don’t dare try that with rail.

    Since Ronald Reagan and the Ayn Rand cult came to power, America’s transit policy has been, in a phrase, “think small.”

  • Woody

    The fact that the Silver Line is one of the most expensive projects in the US is indicative of the US having too few ambitious projects.

    Sorry. That’s what he said. I lost it trying to get it in italic.

  • Adirondacker12800

    Tried and true? Why, is there any metro system outside Tokyo that runs local and express trains on the same set of tracks? Or any metro system outside Tokyo, New York, and Seoul that runs local and express trains at all

    Chicago. Inbound to the Loop in the morning, outbound from the Loop in the evening. Think Flushing line…. There’s places in Chicago where the suburban/interurbans ran on the same El as the local trains. They’ve let the track deteriorate, can’t run trains on them any more. Norristown line in Philadelphia is either light rail on steroids or commuter rail using interurbans. That has local and express service.

  • The Norristown Line is regional rail. It’s signaled as regional rail, it runs regional rail rolling stock, and it’s run by the Regional Rail division.

    Chicago’s Purple Line has a weekday ridership of 10,000, and runs express on a four-track line rather than a two-track line. For Washington to emulate it would be very expensive due to the need to dig four tracks instead of two, while adding little ridership.

  • Adirondacker12800

    The Norristown Line is regional rail.

    Then why is it Route 100 like the trolley routes 101 and 102 instead of being R9 like the regional lines R1 R2 etc?

    It’s signaled as regional rail

    or it’s signaled like the subway and the el.

    it runs regional rail rolling stock

    They don’t run Silverliners on it, nor do they run trolley cars on it. They run Norristown High Speed Line odd hybrid of subway car and interurban trolley car, cars. As single cars or two car sets.

    and it’s run by the Regional Rail division

    Some years. Other years SEPTA calls it Light Rail.

    What does any of that have to do with the Norristown HIgh Speed Line running locals, limiteds and expresses on a two track system that looks like an LRV metro system from one point of view and a commuter line from a different one?

    Chicago’s Purple Line has a weekday ridership of 10,000, and runs express on a four-track line rather than a two-track line.

    The El in Chicago is a metro. They run express trains. Along with Tokyo, Seoul and New York.

    For Washington to emulate it would be very expensive due to the need to dig four tracks instead of two, while adding little ridership.

    Being expensive to run express trains in metro Washington doesn’t make the Purple Line in Chicago stop at all the stations the Red Line does. Or make the Hughes Park Express stop at Penfield or the Norristown Express stop at Haverford.

  • Sorry, I thought you were talking about the R6 Norristown…

  • Stan (Where's my Georgetown Metro?)

    The only reason the Wiehle Avenue station in Reston was included in Phase 1 is because that was the only way to get funds from the Toll Road, which by law can only be spent on improvements to the Toll Road corridor. A project that only affected Tysons would not count.

    The Toll Road funds are vital because they are expected to pay for the majority of the project, and cover any and all of the inevitable cost overruns. It is the only revenue source that can be increased without political red tape and essentially without limit, since drivers have few alternatives and no say in the level of tolling. The phrase “self-imposed taxation” doesn’t really apply here. Tolls will also probably be used in perpetuity to provide the necessary subsidy to operate the line once built.

    The Dulles connection is projected to draw very few riders and will provide a slower connection than an express bus due to the number of stations between the airport and Falls Church / downtown.
    I question the wisdom of building this line rather than spending the money on improving Metro’s existing infrastructure, which is suffering problems with crowding and safety.

  • Local Governments and airports seem to be obsessed with gaining train / metro links. If you think you have problems, in the UK the ‘crossrail’ project (the main benefit of which is sugeested to be fast links from East and West of London to Heathrow) is going to cause chaos in and around London during the construction (distruction!), will not be ready for the Olympics and will cost £15.9bn (that’s 15.9 thousand million pounds). Will it ever pay back? I dount it. Ho hum !

  • Mike

    The Silver Line is crucial to growth in Loudoun and will be good for the county especially Sterling area. They need to find a way to pay for it and make it happen. It’s time!

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