» 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!