A $3B Train Finally Arrives in Suburban Washington
After years of construction problems, safety issues and the pandemic, the last section of a 23-mile commuter rail project is complete, connecting the region's international airport and outer suburbs with Washington.
On Nov. 15, the first train load of paying customers pulled out of Ashburn Station in Loudoun County, Va., 28 miles west of Washington, D.C. They were celebrating the start of service on Phase 2 of the Silver Line extension, the newest addition to the Washington area’s Metro system. The inaugural trip was a long time coming, arriving four years late and $250 million over budget.
Costing $3 billion and one of the country’s most ambitious capital construction projects, the extension adds nearly 12 miles of track, six new stations and the system’s largest maintenance facility to the 11.7 miles of track that was completed eight years ago as Phase 1.
Years behind schedule, Phase 2 of the extension encountered difficulties almost as soon as construction began eight years ago. Expensive changes were made to stormwater management systems to satisfy new state and federal rules, adding tens of millions in costs. Substandard concrete was discovered in several of the stations, necessitating replacement. Flaws were discovered in rail supports. A platform at the new maintenance facility was found to be the wrong size. Adding to Metro’s woes, the pandemic hit, followed by a safety issue with its rail cars, taking half of the fleet out of service.
With more than 400,000 people living within five miles of the new stations, the Silver Line extension is intended to encourage less car-dependent suburban development. Gleaming office towers and high-density housing have been springing up along the line long before it opened. Thousands of residential units are already occupied or under construction around Ashburn Station, along with an expanding commercial center and planned “smart city.”
For many metro-area residents and businesses, the Silver Line’s greatest benefit is the long-awaited connection to Dulles Airport, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Beginning in 1962 and in every decade to follow, the airport access road’s median has been reserved for the numerous rail, bus and monorail proposals put forth, linking the terminal to the city. Today, all but one of the six new Silver Line stations is situated in the median of what is now known as the Dulles Toll Road. The exception being the airport stop.
As far back as 1969 and continuing through the spring of 2011, plans called for an underground airport Metro station, 550 feet from the Dulles terminal. But ballooning costs necessitated the change to an above-ground station, connected to the terminal by an existing pedestrian tunnel with moving walkways. Abandoning the underground station is estimated to have saved over $600 million in construction costs.
Phases 1 and 2 of the Silver Line together cost more than $6 billion, most of which has been funded by drivers on the toll road that runs along both sides of the tracks and stations. The bulk of the $250 million cost overrun is also coming from the toll road users. A project conceived to get people out of their cars is ultimately dependent on fees generated by automobile usage.
Three weeks after the hoopla of opening day at Ashburn Station, a handful of early commuters are spaced along the platform under an indigo sky. One of them, a government contractor, has been riding every day, “Pretty much since it opened,” he says before stepping aboard. The long-awaited train has finally arrived.