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Posted at 2:20 PM ET, 09/16/2010

Is Phase Two of Dulles Metro the right investment?

By Dan Malouff

Phase One of the Metrorail Silver Line is one of the most promising infrastructure investments in America. Tysons Corner has more office space than downtown Baltimore and Richmond combined but has developed in a haphazard, dysfunctional way. The arrival of Metro promises to transform the behemoth that is Tysons into a manageable, functional urban place. Accomplishing that will be well worth the $2.76 billion price-tag.

Phase Two of the Silver Line will do no such thing. For $3.83 billion, more than a billion dollars more than Phase One, Phase Two will extend the line 11.5 miles into Loudoun County, with five stations that will be used primarily as park-and-rides plus a sixth at Dulles Airport. That's $333 million per mile.

Park-and-rides and transit access to the airport are both great things, but are they worth almost $4 billion?

Consider other transit investments we might make with that same amount of money.

Arlington's proposed streetcar on Columbia Pike will cost an average of $27 million per mile. That suggests that for the same cost as Phase Two, Northern Virginia could build 140 miles of streetcar lines.

Granted, streetcars aren't as good as Metro, but isn't the opportunity to blanket every major corridor in Northern Virginia with rail transit at least worth considering? Imagine bonafide trains running up and down Route 7, Route 50, Little River Turnpike, Chain Bridge Road -- a whole network that could take you anywhere. To me, that seems better than one Metro line.

Of course, providing transit to Dulles Airport is important, but we can do better for less money. The big problem with the Silver Line is that with all those stops between Dulles and downtown Washington, the trip is going to take a really long time. If all you want to do is get to Dulles, then a new bus rapid transit line could get you there faster than Metrorail, and it could be created for less than the cost of a single mile of new Silver Line.

Getting Metro to Tysons Corner was something that our region absolutely had to accomplish. Getting Metro to Dulles Airport is not. For less money, we could use a combination of bus rapid transit and light rail/streetcars to provide faster access to Dulles and dramatically improve transit throughout all of Northern Virginia.

Instead of an expensive, one-size-fits-all solution that only helps a few, let's use our money efficiently to provide better transit service for more people.

Dan Malouff is an Arlington County transportation planner who blogs independently at The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Dan Malouff  | September 16, 2010; 2:20 PM ET
Categories:  Local blog network, Metro, Virginia, traffic, transportation  
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An underground station might be nice. But an above ground station right above the present area where shuttle buses currently stop would also be fine.

Posted by: googleguy | September 16, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

We, in 'Phase 2' land are financing phase 1. So don't tell us that Phase2 is not worth it. Without us you would not get Phase 1!

Posted by: AMviennaVA | September 16, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Good point, Mr. Malouff. I have always wanted Phase II, but this has gone a long way to change my mind. I wonder what it would cost to extend the purple line all the way around the beltway....if it was less than Phase II, I'd be for it. Maybe the savings could be redirected back to the homeowners and taxpayers in the "phase II" zone or something.

Posted by: supersmax | September 16, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Dan, the train has left the station. These were good arguments before the project was approved. As a matter of fact, the Bush Department of Transportation was way out in front of you. They didn't think it made sense either.

Also, how are you going to reconcile the fact that the project is being funded by the airport authority if the line does not go to the airport.

Posted by: tkelley55 | September 16, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

I agree the train has left the station, so to speak, but at least we can think about this for the future. Eventually someone is going to suggest extending the Orange line, and all the same arguments will apply.

As for funding, if I recall correctly the line is being funded by a combination of state transportation funds, highway toll revenue, and commercial real estate taxes. The real estate taxes cannot leave the corridor, but they represent a minority of the funding. MWAA was given control over highway toll revenue specifically for this project, but that was merely a mechanism to get it done; if we wanted to do something else, the state could take back the toll road.

One key difference between what I am saying and what Bush said is that Bush would have had us build the BRT and nothing else (not even Phase 1). I am fully in favor of spending the full amount on transit, I'd just prefer to spread it around differently. Bush wanted to spend less. I want to spend more, but on different things.

And finally, a disclaimer: Don't take any of my criticisms as an argument to spend on highways instead of transit. Phase 2 is still a better project than any new or widened highway.

Posted by: Dan Malouff | September 16, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse


Too late. I am sure the 900 million full funding grant agreement from the feds for phase 2 would go away if it weren't used for Phase 2, the tax district money is for the phase 2 stations and can't be used elsewhere, the toll road revenue can only be used for improvements in the corridor (why should DTR revenue go to fund projects in Eastern FFX or Arlington anyway?), and Loudoun $$'s aren't going to be used elsewhere. The project will have a big impact on Reston and provide a much needed option for frustrated Route 7 commuters. Have you driven out that way lately? I agree MWAA needs to compete this out and bring the cost down as much as possible. I don't agree that we would have this money available if it weren't for service to the airport and the 50 year effort that has gone into securing it.

Posted by: juliusbewhere1 | September 16, 2010 10:57 PM | Report abuse

There was clearly more of a political calculus than an economic one involved in that decision.

I'd quibble about the bus systems, though. Americans just don't like 'em. They'll ride rail without many qualms, but not busses.

Posted by: krickey7 | September 17, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

The $900 million federal grant agreement was for Phase 1. At this time there is no federal grant for Phase 2.

Posted by: Dan Malouff | September 17, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Consider this - which apparently Metro has not:

Where in the world is all the luggage going to go?

For people traveling either direction - how are already jam packed Orange Line cars going to be able to accomodate all of these travelers? I used to commute on the Orange Line from WFC every day and I really cant imagine fitting more *people* on the trains - let alone people and luggage.

Metro to Dulles has never made any sense to me and still doesnt. And now with the announcement that they are going to study stopping the Metro line near the daily parking garages instead of at the terminal? That will be pretty fun an hour or so Metro ride with your bags and then you still get to walk/drag them to the terminal. Good fun.

Posted by: dcmidnight | September 17, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Rarely do I disagree with you, but on this I think the suggestion to use low investment BRT to Dulles is irresponsible. We already have an express bus to Dulles. If we are taking for fact the assumption that investing in a Metro line to Dulles is a bad investment because the number of stations and infrastructure needed for these stations is prohibitive, then a much better solution would be to allocate some of that money to a high speed express rail line (perhaps still part of Metro) directly from Dulles to either Tyson (a stupid but perhaps necessary starting point), or preferably to somewhere well within the District or Arlington. The rest should be allocated to light rail lines.

Posted by: crzytwnman | September 17, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Just so we're clear, the express bus I'm speaking of is Metrobus Route 5A. The bus runs from L'Enfant Plaza to Dulles via just Rosslyn, Tysons, and Herndon using the express airport lanes in the middle of the Toll Road after leaving Arlington. This is tantamount to BRT.

Posted by: crzytwnman | September 17, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

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