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An Unstoppable Train to Dulles

The Metrorail extension to Dulles is flawed and expensive, and it's going to get built. That's a Gridlockian prediction based on the pattern set by the Wilson Bridge and the Springfield interchange.

Each of those projects had its problems with design and finance, but those issues are distant memories now. If enough people in leadership positions see a transportation project as essential to the future of this region, they'll find a way to get it done. Rebid a contract, extend the construction schedule, chop the project into more phases with more revenue sources -- whatever it takes.

That's what the Virginia government was up to on Thursday when Gov. Tim Kaine announced that the state planned to cut $300 million from the $2.8 billion cost of the rail extension. As Amy Gardner reported in today's Post, the cuts include:
-- Eliminating $77 million in road improvements to Route 7 in Tysons Corner that can be paid for with separate state money;
-- Cutting a parking garage in Reston and building it through a public-private partnership instead;

-- Building smaller canopies at Metrorail stations;

-- Laying concrete platforms instead of the more expensive tile pavers.

Likewise, a Metro fare increase next year is inevitable. It won't be the same as the one proposed Thursday by Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. and reported in today's Post by Lena H. Sun. The board that must approve it is an unwieldy beast created from jurisdictions with different constituencies. All must be satisfied, or at least, molified, before the fare increase can take effect.

The essential struggle is between city and suburbs. District residents ride a relatively short distance on Metrorail, and many just take the bus. Suburbanites overwhelmingly use Metrorail, and they get to the stations by driving and parking.

D.C. reps on the board will want to hold down the increase in the base rail fare and in the bus fare. Maryland and Virginia reps will focus on keeping the increase in the parking fees and the long distance rail fares as low as possible. They'll all ask Catoe for some more budget trims, or to forget about replenishing the rainy day fund.

So watch for some adjustments in the proposal before it goes to public hearings later this year, but do plan on setting aside more money for riding Metro in your personal budget for 2008.

By Robert Thomson  |  September 14, 2007; 7:35 AM ET
Categories:  Transportation Politics  
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I just thought of something that had not yet occurred to me. How does an elevated Metrorail line through Tysons affect the HOT project? From the article in the Post the other day, and from my review of the HOT website, my understanding is that the plan is to have some sort of interchange between the HOT lanes and that bridge over 123 that connects Tysons I and Tysons II. The elevated Metro line would also pass right through this area, presumably passing over the Beltway and the bridge in question. I have to assume that the HOT designers will have to design around the Metro project since it was planned first?

Posted by: Rich | September 14, 2007 8:41 AM | Report abuse

Really, this rail project is ridiculous. If IAD wants rail, put the whole thing in the median of the access road. Not only would it meet cost guidelines, but it would get to IAD much faster, carry almost as many passengers, and not tie up tysons for years to come. What a moronic waste of tax dollars; doesn't matter whose tax dollars but we all pay them.

Posted by: Steven | September 14, 2007 9:15 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Rich, you're very right to be thinking about the combined effect of the rail and HOT lane construction in the Tysons area. The impact of the construction phase on shoppers, office workers and commuters in Tysons will be tremendous. With the rail line, the planners' assumption all along was that it would be elevated, so it's not a question of suddenly having to adjust to a major new element. I think the HOT lane engineers do have to work with the elevated rail line as a given.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | September 14, 2007 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Have to second Steven, here. You have a nice, clean access lane - what has blown this project out of proportion is trying to make the project run through Tysons.

Re-map it so it's not going through Tysons, (and increase bus schedules from West Falls), and the whole thing will probably be a lot less expensive and go a lot faster.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | September 14, 2007 9:34 AM | Report abuse

I have lived in Northern Virginia with few exceptions, for the past 40 years. I am writing this on behalf of adding some sanity to tje issue. I would like to offer an alternative which is more efficient, can be implemented sooner, operates 24/7/365, will be ahead of its time rather than outmoded before it is built and most importantly,


The alternative I propose is the Personal Rapid Transit system offered by SkyTran (

SkyTran has been developed by a group of American Engineers under a US DOT grant and in collaboration with NASA National Center for advanced manufacturing and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. These gentlemen are the real rocket scientists and are willing to install their PRT along the Dulles route at NO COST to the government provided they are granted the right of way and the right to operate. They are also willing to offer a completion bond to ensure the construction and operation of the system.

If we remain committed to a 19th century rail system, it will take more than 10 years to build and will be outmoded at the start of construction. Further, it will be limited in its ability to move people from one point to another, will have inconvenient schedules and will cost THE GOVERNMENT AND CITIZENS OF FAIRFAX COUNTY more than 5 BILLION DOLLARS.

For the no more reason than getting the rail line built, becoming an example of rational, forward thinking mass transit and being responsible to the tax payers of Fairfaz, Virginia and the United States, we should stop working on the outmoded 5 BILLION DOLLAR project and focus on an AMERICAN developed and built 21st century alternative.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 14, 2007 10:03 AM | Report abuse

As much as I want to see the rail line head through Tyson's (afterall, I work there and live 2 blocks from a Metro station in DC), I agree that having one Tyson's Station near the current Tyson's Westpark transit station would be a better compromise solution. From there, you can run busses or light rail around Tyson's as a local circulator, and you'd probably cover a lot more ground that way than you would by relying on heavy rail for internal circulation. Of course this would likely require some dedicated bus lanes to make sure busses or light rail vehicles don't have to sit in congestion, but it seems that roadway lanes are a lot cheaper than rail lines.

I'm also surprised that Metro never seriously considered BRT for this project. All you would need to do is add one dedicated bus lane to the airport access road and through Tyson's, and you could have a bus come every minute during the peak hour. You can still have the park and ride facilities (see Herndon-Monroe), and you could even consider the BRT route to be part of the Metro fare collection system for seamless transfers between bus and rail at West Falls Church, and...this is reallly thinking outside the box for Metro....maybe even have the busses pull up right next to the train platforms (bus on one side, rail on the other), so people can do a "cross platform" transfer from the bus onto the trains into DC and Arlington, sort of like how they do express to local transfers in NYC on the subway.

I'm very glad to see Metro is finally considering concrete platforms. I always thought that if Metro strayed away from aesthetics and started concentrating on functionality we could have more transportation for the same amount of dollars. Besides, the tile platforms are nice, but they get boring after a while. I'll take a functional concrete platform any day over a tiled platform that they can't afford to run train service to.

Posted by: Woodley Park | September 14, 2007 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Couple more points I forgot about my BRT idea:

If you want to see a perfect example of how a "Silver Line to the Airport" could be built, look no further than Boston's Silver Line. First, it is a special bus...special enough to be on the subway map so that normal people can see it and don't have to attempt to figure out an overly confusing bus map. Secondly, there is a big mix of places where the bus runs. It runs on normal roads (the Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor and Airport roadways), it runs in dedicated bus/HOV lanes (part of the Big Dig), and it runs in a dedicated BRT way (which is essentially a subway tunnel under downtown that busses drive in instead of trains running through them). Thirdly, the stations on the BRT portion of the route are like subway stations, where you pay before you get to the bus...however the stops at the airport, you pay as you board the bus. Fourth, for those concerned with pollution generated by busses, the "on road" portion of the Silver Line runs under the bus's diesel engine power. The dedicated BRT tunnel portion runs on electricity. The switch takes no longer than the amount of time it takes to make a stop, and in fact the planners placed a stop at the location where the power change occurs. All they do is pull into the stop, open the doors, start the engine, pull the power thingy down off the overhead wire, shut the door, and go in about 20 seconds. Fifth, the transfer from the Silver Line to the Red Line at South Station is relatively seamless, as the stations are part of the same subway station complex. And lastly, if there is ever a problem in the dedicated BRT portion of the route, the dispatchers have the option of routing the busses via normal streets through downtown since they have fare collection equipment and diesel engines.

As I said, I think something like this would be much better than the current Dulles Rail, and much cheaper too, with the same amount of overall benefit. Build it in the median of the Access Road, send some trips to Tyson's and some to West Falls Church. Heck, during rush hours send some trips to Rosslyn or DC making use of HOV-only I-66 and aleviating some congestion on the Orange Line in Arlington.

Posted by: Woodley Park | September 14, 2007 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Metro (WMATA) is not building this silver line extension. It does not have a say in how it gets built. The state of Virginia is the one building the rail line and they are just going to hand the keys over to Metro when they are done. Also, a large portion of the money, I think a quarter or maybe half, of the money to build this project is coming from a special tax on the landowners in Tysons that they agreed to. If you take away the rail from Tysons and just put it down the median, I really doubt the landowners in Tysons will cough up their share of the money. Don't blame Metro. Blame Virginia.

Posted by: Rich2 | September 14, 2007 10:38 AM | Report abuse

I was just in Boston a month ago and rode their Silver Line... it was very easy and well done. I live here, and I never bother with Metrobus, and I certainly would never recommend it to a tourist, but as a visitor in Boston I had no problems with the Silver Line bus. But really, the T and the commuter rail in Boston are vastly superior to anything we have here, so I'm not surprised that their buses are better too.

Posted by: kevin r | September 14, 2007 10:39 AM | Report abuse

I wouldn't call the T superior, just different for a different town. The rail served area of Boston doesn't sprawl like DC's and they don't run the same kid of trains. The T is in large part a trolley that happens to run underground, so it's not really a fair comparison betwene the two.

And the whole point of the "Metro to Dulles" plan is to have rail service through the Tyson's area. The line would never get built without it as yo ucouldn't justify the cost of running it out the 23 miles just to go to the airport. I agree that maybe they should have looked at the idea of BRT and a different enginerring layout from West Falls Church to Dulles, but it is what it is and they need to build it asap.

Some interesting accounting fliparounds in the proposal. I like the idea of the concrete platform. It won't break and should be less slippery.

Posted by: EricS | September 14, 2007 10:50 AM | Report abuse

When do we get Metro to BWI?

Posted by: Blah blah blah | September 14, 2007 11:04 AM | Report abuse

ENOUGH with people who think the metro should just run down the toll road and bypass Tysons. READ the project documents and you will realize quickly that the line MUST go through Tysons in order to meet ridership. Believe it or not, IAD, Herndon, and Reston DO NOT provide the required ridership for this project. So it's a complete farce when the Governor and the completely lame half of the VA Congressional Delegation stands up on Capitol Hill yesterday and claims that the region needs it for the AIRPORT! Come on - duh! Everyone knows it's the sprawl-loving landowners/developers in Loudoun that are behind this project. Why else would Wolf and Warner be completely unflappable. Stupid, stupid men!

Posted by: Lisa in Vienna | September 14, 2007 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I wasn't saying we should turn the Metro into the T...the T has its own problems. I was using the T's Silver Line as an example of thinking outside the box, and how poorly Metro thinks outside the box (based on their their insistance on aesthetics over functionality and absolute uniformity).

Posted by: Woodley Park | September 14, 2007 12:56 PM | Report abuse

It's the difference between Miss Right and Miss Right Now.

Posted by: Stick | September 14, 2007 2:46 PM | Report abuse

The reasons we're getting for Dulles rail via Tysons just don't hold water:

"It will reduce traffic congestion"

NOT. Every study has shown Dulles rail will not attract enough ridership to make it cost effective.

"It will spur development"

In other words, it will encourage sprawl and cause incresaed trafic. Isn't that the same reason people have used for opposing new highways?

Oh, I get it. We have a double-standard. If developement is reachable by a heavily capitalized, heavily-subsidized, money-losing, non-scalable heavy rail train operated by union labor, it's "smart growth" - the denser the better. If you can get there by yourself in your own car, it's "sprawl".

"Other cities have rail to their airports"

So what? Other cities also built out their planned highway networks. As a result, they have less congestion than we do. Meanwhile, we waste our time and resources on the long-ago proven-wrong lunacy that rail is a cure-all that makes highways unnecessary.

Face it. The Dulles rail developers' boondoggle and rail advocates' ego trip is fast on its way to meeting the same fate as our well-planned, badly-needed, but canceled highways. As it should. Hopefully, once that white elephant is put out of its misery, we can concentrate our resources on realistic, viabl, useful transportation priorites including building rail where it will serve the TRUE purpose of so-called mass transit.

Posted by: CEEAF | September 14, 2007 4:48 PM | Report abuse

To blah blah blah: BWI has had train service, from DC and Baltimore, for decades. It's called MARC and AMTRAK. You can transfer from METRO at Union Station or New Carrolton.

Posted by: woody2471 | September 16, 2007 11:39 AM | Report abuse

I have been on Boston's so-called Silver Line BRT between Logan Airport and South Station. It is in no way comparable to a rail line. Among other things, it is excruciatingly slow once it comes out of the Ted Williams Tunnel and goes on its own right of way. The speed limit in the tunnel is about 20 mph on straightaways and 10 mph on curves, if I remember correctly, and I think there was even a section where the speed limit is 6 mph.

There is a second section of the Silver Line, on Washington Street, which is supposed to serve locals rather than tourists. I haven't been on it, but according to what I've read it's a complete joke. People park in the supposed reserved bus lane, and when it snows (not a rare event in Boston) the snow is plowed into the bus lane.

Posted by: ex-Bostonian | September 16, 2007 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: duh | September 17, 2007 11:29 AM | Report abuse


Great post.

Here are good reasons NOT to build it:

"The wealthy land owners who will gain the most from Metro rail going through Tysons Corner"

" the airport station is projected to have the lowest number of passengers of all 75 Metro stops. "

That's enough for ME.

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