City Desk

No Silver Lining: Metro Growth Will Make Life Worse Before It Makes Life Better

Silver Line

Metro’s new Silver Line is one of the largest transit projects under construction in the country, bringing with it new trains, new destinations, even a new color to the region’s subway system.

Last week, riders got to see the new Metrorail map showing the actual line for the first time. And by the beginning of next year, they should be able to ride trains on it.

But the Silver Line, heralded as it is, may actually make Metro worse for riders in the short-term.

Yes, the first 11.6-mile section will finally make the bustling, car-centric Tysons Corner hub of retail and jobs accessible by train. The rest of the 23-mile line should connect to Washington Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County by 2018. In doing so, the project will expand the Metrorail system by 22 percent, in the biggest single addition to the system since it was built.

Except that the new line will also funnel more riders into the crowded downtown stations of a burdened and aging transit system that currently struggles to keep up with a backlog of repairs. The line is expanding the mouth of the bottle but not the neck. Any Metro rider during rush hour has seen the packed platforms downtown and waited in line to climb frozen escalators—now add more people.

The new line will also reduce service for some riders, because Metro is cramming another Virginia line into a tunnel under the Potomac River that literally cannot fit any more trains.

And the expansion may be coming before the rail system is actually ready. Service systemwide will likely be less reliable for years to come, because Metro won’t complete an expansion of its fleet of train cars until at least 2017.

It may also be coming too late to reform ungainly Tysons and to resuscitate Dulles Airport, which is already losing passengers to more accessible rivals.

For all this, the system’s cost per passenger will likely rise, leaving riders and taxpayers around the region to pay the bill.

Even if you never take the Silver Line, it’ll affect your regular Metro trips once it begins operating. Commuters already know how a single broken door can force a train out of service and foul up a morning commute along the whole line. The train cars that run on the system are old and temperamental, sometimes even stinking of mildew. Now imagine those same rail cars spread even thinner around the system than they are today. In the short term, the transit agency is planning to cover more ground with that same fleet of trains.

Metro has ordered 128 new rail cars to accommodate the Silver Line expansion but, except for four test cars, the reinforcements won’t begin to trickle in until around next August. The last of those new cars aren’t scheduled to arrive until 2017. And each new car needs to undergo extensive testing before it can be put into service.

Even as the new cars begin to arrive, Metro also faces a trade-off between safety and service. The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly told the transit agency to scrap its oldest generation of rail cars, the Rohr 1000 series. That model crushed like soda cans in the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people. Metro has ordered 300 cars to replace those 1000 series cars, in addition to the cars for the expansion. But as each new car arrives, Metro will need to decide whether to expand its fleet or to retire one of the old, less safe cars.

Already, the agency has been reducing the number of cars it keeps in reserve, limiting its capacity to quickly replace cars with broken doors or other problems. The transit agency has about 1,120 rail cars. Last year, Metro operated about 770 of those rail cars in daily service. Recently, Metro increased the number to 906 cars daily. Once the first section of the Silver Line opens, the agency has said it will need 954 cars in daily service. That leaves less than half the number of spare cars that were available about two years ago.

Metro says better maintenance will allow it to skate by with fewer cars in reserve. “Simply put, we will have sufficient cars to support Silver Line operations,” Metro spokeswoman Caroline Lukas says. But those cars will have to remain extra-reliable for years until the new cars can fill the void.

Meanwhile, some riders—including Northern Virginians, who are paying for much of the nearly $6 billion cost of building the new line—will see their existing rail service diminish. Literally no more trains can fit through the Rosslyn tunnel that bores under the Potomac River, so something needs to give to fit the new line.

The so-called Rush Plus campaign launched last summer was the first stage of the change, with the agency rerouting some trains during peak hours. Riders to and from the Virginia end of the Blue Line got longer waits and more crowded trains. Once the Silver Line begins, the frequency of Blue Line service there will be reduced further from an average of every 8.5 minutes to 12 minutes throughout the day, according to Metro.

Lukas insists this isn’t a “net” service reduction. “Riders at stations along the Blue Line will see trains arrive as frequently as they do today, but more of them will be Yellow,” she says by email. “As many customers learned from Rush Plus, taking a Yellow Line train and transferring at L’Enfant Plaza may provide a faster trip.”

But riders haven’t been totally convinced that transferring from Blue to Yellow is better for them, despite Metro’s attempts to woo them with free ride credits.

The reduction in trains also hits some Orange Line riders. When the Silver Line begins, the extra trains borrowed from the Blue Line for Rush Plus to bolster service on the Orange Line will be diverted away from the western end of that overcrowded line, at the Vienna, Dunn Loring and West Falls Church stations. Riders there will wait, on average, 5.5 minutes between trains, instead of the current 3.5 minute average, the agency has estimated. Metro has said it doesn’t expect more crowding, though, as some existing riders will choose to take the Silver Line instead.

And everyone will be sharing in the costs of running the Silver Line—even if they never set foot on it.

While many Silver Line riders will likely pay the system’s highest fare, currently $5.75 with a SmarTrip card, that money won’t cover the whole cost for a ride. (For that matter, every ride on Metro is already subsidized by taxpayer dollars.)

The expectation is that the Silver Line will drive up the cost per passenger trip even more, in part because it’s a long, suburban line with stops that are relatively far apart. The most cost-effective lines generally run through already densely populated areas. Those who live in Maryland and the District will be helping pay to run the trains, either by subsidizing Metrorail more or paying higher fares. Or, conceivably, both.

So is the Silver Line worth the short- and long-term pain?

The new line will connect to Tysons, whose center of gravity as a jobs center is already swaying the regional economy. Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, notes that the expansion will make it easier for District residents who don’t have cars—by choice or by income—to get to those jobs. That’s a real concern in the city, where unemployment remained 8.9 percent in June, more than twice the rate of Arlington.

That creates the chance for Metro to capitalize more on reverse-commuters filling seats on the near-empty trains out of the downtown core each morning as they head to Tysons Corner, making the system more efficient. And the line could mean fewer roads needing to be built and less pollution spewing from cars stuck in traffic trying to reach Tysons. That could be good for everyone, since smog doesn’t stay on one side of a border.

But the Silver Line is effectively chasing development there, rather than being the catalyst for growth like the Orange Line was in Arlington. Transit advocates like Ben Ross—a leader of Action Committee for Transit, which has fought to improve Metro and local transit options for 27 years—are doubtful Tysons will end up easily walkable. Instead, he says, the development will be “transit-adjacent,” not “transit-oriented.”

The second phase of the line will eventually give riders the chance to take the train to Dulles. But it’ll take 52 minutes to get there from Metro Center, by the agency’s estimate. And that doesn’t include waits for trains or the time it takes to walk from the station to the airline terminals. (As a cost-cutting measure, the airport stop was relocated from the terminal to a parking garage.) Such a long trip may not be worthwhile for any but the most time-rich and cash-poor travelers.

Getting to Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport, by contrast, takes as little as 32 minutes on a MARC commuter train from Union Station, not including the final connection to the airport terminals. MARC will run on weekends starting Dec. 7, becoming even more attractive for D.C. travelers. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is already an easy Metro trip for most in D.C.

“It’s something of a mistake to think of the Silver Line as providing a way to get to the airport,” says Zachary Schrag, a George Mason University professor who wrote a history of Metro. “It’s more important to think of it as an employment corridor.”

Groups such as the Coalition for Smarter Growth unsuccessfully fought plans to run the Silver Line down the center of highways, arguing that would make it much harder to goose development around the 11 stations.

“It will not achieve as much as it could have achieved,” Schwartz says.

Some of the downsides of the Silver Line’s construction might become more common in D.C.-area public transit in the future. Metrorail was designed to be regional, uniting the needs of the District, Maryland, and Virginia, while shuttling federal workers between their jobs and suburban homes. But the transit agency washed its hands of that high-stakes political poker game in 2007. It laid off the last of its construction and engineering crews and focused solely on operating the system, leaving any new construction up to the individual jurisdictions to undertake—and fund. That allowed a more parochial view to take hold.

Northern Virginia wanted another line, so it’s building one. Maryland wants one, too, so it plans to build the Purple Line. The District and Arlington want streetcars, while Montgomery County wants a network of bus lanes. All these separate plans could create a fractious transit system that leaves the region with lots of incompatible lines and different styles of train cars and trolleys that don’t work on each others’ systems.

Transit advocates and development planners are hesitant to publicly complain about the Silver Line, perhaps a testament to the vulnerability transit has faced politically. They’re trying to see the train car as half-full, even if the line means growing pains and uncertain outcomes. “The Silver Line is being built,” Schwartz says. “We should make sure it succeeds.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • ThisSeemsBiased

    first of all under the metro funding formuala, wont more miles, stations, and riders in Va mean more dollars from Va? The operating subsidy should not be paid by DC and Md, and if it is, the problem is the funding formula.

    second, what basis does Ben Ross have for saying Tysons will not become walkable? Has he seen the comprehensive plan for Tysons? The funding already lined up to improve the street grid? The plans submitted by developers for new, urban style, developments? Tysons may not become perfect (and yes, 123 and 7 will still be barriers) but it will be far better than "transit adjacent".

    third - wrt congestion in the core - some of that will be addressed as the new cars come on stream. And some of that will require investments - but thats a positive - those improvements (including ultimately a seperate blue line under M Street) were needed anyway, and this may help provide the push for them.

  • MLD

    "Metro has ordered 128 new rail cars to accommodate the Silver Line expansion but, except for four test cars, the reinforcements won’t begin to trickle in until around next August. The last of those new cars aren’t scheduled to arrive until 2017. And each new car needs to undergo extensive testing before it can be put into service."

    This is misleading; you imply that the cars needed for the Silver Line won't be done until 2017. That's not true. Metro only needs 64 cars for the Silver Line Phase I and those should all be running in the system by the end of 2014. Phase II of the Silver Line won't be done until 2018, by which point all of the 700+ 7000-series cars will be in service.

  • DC

    "not including the final connection to the airport terminals. "

    That's a huge exception! The shuttles run every 15 minutes and it takes 10 minutes to get there. So if you're unlucky in timing, that "last mile" can end up adding close to another half hour. It's a huge, huge drawback for taking Marc to the airport, (which otherwise is a great option).

    Also, it's just weird that you never mention the separated Blue line plans once.

  • Commish

    Ok Really the tunnel can't fit any more trains. That's crap! I don't buy half the BS in this article. Especially the tunnel reference. Are you a complete moron. Only one train at a time can go through the tunnel in each direction... so WTF! Sound like you are just down on Metro no matter what and that's make this article CRAP! And the downtown stations being crowded. Please you are an idiot have you been to NY have you stood at a station. You are looking for a lounge for the Ritz to wait in GIVE ME A BREAK! CP should fired you for this stupid article! And now you jump on fares going up...of course they are going to go up! Has milk gone up has gas gone up? Really you are so out of touch with reality it's sickening!

  • Will

    Kytja, Great to see you writing for WCP. We missed your great coverage after the 'zaminer stopped printing.

  • TomQ

    A lot of speculative gloom and doom in here but I think the real story here is why are about 45% of Metro's rail cars out of service at any given time? Is that figure actually correct?

    I guess it is similar to the escalator numbers but that seems too high to me.

    In any case as long as the current rail car order gets delivered by 2018 when the rail line is to reach Dulles according to this piece (though the Post always claims 2020) WMATA will have plenty of rail cars and in fact half of the larger fleet of rail cars will be 3 years old or newer at that point so I don't think car capacity is something we need to be too concerned about.

    And really this article made no attempt to assess the possible impact on fare box collection of reverse commuters - if the reverse commuters in this corridor mirror the current reverse commute patterns in the Tenleytown to Medical Center section of the Red Line then this extension could in fact improve operating costs because otherwise empty trains will suddenly be carrying paying customers.

    And FWIW 52 minutes from Metro Center to Dulles is actually pretty good (and sounds optimistic to me) so I wonder if the author has spent much time on I-66?

    But the real issue here that the author struggled to concentrate on is the core capacity issue which has existed for a number of years and will be exacerbated by this extension (though the author ignores the possibility of a great increase in suburb to suburb commuting) so what she needs to actually write about is why plans are not moving along rapidly for a separated blue line which is necessary to resolve the tunnel capacity issue at Rosslyn as well as the capacity constraints at Union Station which in turn limits the opportunities to greatly increase commuter rail in the region.

  • Jeff

    Echoing Will's sentiments, it's great to see you covering Metro again!

  • recyclist

    Here's how Metro's operating cost subsidy works:

    No, DC and MD won't be paying for the new service if they don't use it. And note the funding formula looks at jurisdiction of residence, not station jurisdiction. If you live in Loudoun, Loudoun subsidizes your trip even if it's between two stations in DC.

  • Kytja Weir

    In response to MLD: Thanks for the comment. I hear your point about only 64 cars being needed for the first phase of the Silver Line. But remember that Metro is also supposed to be replacing the 1000 series at the same time, so the system would need to have 364 of the 7000 series rail cars arrive to meet the needs of the Phase I expansion and 1000 series replacement. Those will likely not all be running until well after 2014. So it seems fair to suggest that there will not be a net expansion of rail cars for several years after the line starts running.

  • Mario

    "Such a long trip may not be worthwhile for any but the most time-rich and cash-poor travelers."
    Wow, I'm neither time-rich nor cash-poor, but paying $65-75 for a taxi to IAD that takes at least 30-40 minutes is insane, especially since we have the 5A Metrobus. It takes 55-65 minutes to get to IAD from L'Enfant and costs $6. And since the economic downturn it's more popular than ever in the 10 years I've been taking it.
    But 52 minutes!? Metro will have to do better than that.

  • Smax

    My guess is that the reverse commuters come through in a big way on this line. I live in DC and work in Tysons and will most certainly be taking this every day. I think there are a lot of people in my boat, and there will be even more once there is a true metro connection to the area. The connection the Silver Line provides to jobs cannot be understated.

  • john from silver spring

    i thought the silver line was going to follow the beltway from loudoun to moco and around to pgco...i dont see the purpose in adding another line to the already super congested midtown area..other than allowing metro riders to roll out to tysons corner. much to do abt nothing.

  • Jes’ sayin

    You say it takes 32 minutes to get to BWI not counting the bus transfer. Well, Kytje, you can't walk from the Amtrak station to BWI. And getting off the train and waiting for the bus and taking the bus a mile and change from the station to the terminal adds another 10 or 15 - or 20 - minutes. So it's no big difference.

    And I don't want to spend $70 on a cab or $70 to park my car for a week in long term parking or at some hotel parking lot at I certainly am willing to take 52 minutes to get out to Dulles on Metro. Hell, it takes me longer than that to drive out there, park my car at my favorite enclosed hotel parking lot, and then wait to take the shuttle bus to the airport.

    $140 for round-trip cab fare is reason enough to take Metro to Dulles, if only we live long enough to see it.

  • Arlington Traveler

    This article misrepresents the time to BWI. First of all, outside of rush hours there is only hourly MARC service outside of rush hours. When weekend service starts, there will be 8 round trips on Saturdays and 7 on Sundays. In contrasts, when the Silver Line reaches Dulles Airport the Silver Line will have normal off peak service which would be every 12 minutes outside of rush hour, except late at night when trains will run every 20 minutes.

    Finally, the travel time from Metro Center is misleading. The existing bus service to Dulles goes from West Falls Church (Washington Flyer) and the Rossyln and L'Enfant plaza stations. The trip times from Rossyln will be comparable to the 5A and the trip times for all the stations from Rossyln through Ballston will be much better and a one seat ride. Plus, now folks won't have to transfer which is a big disincentive to ride transit if you have baggage.

  • SE DC

    I'm with Mario! The last time I flew in/out of Dulles for work, I took the bus there and decided to splurge on a cab back into DC. It took an hour and a half and cost $80! Even though my employer was covering the costs, I was outraged just on principle. The Silver Line will make me considering using Dulles in the future for long-distance flights. Even if it takes an hour, it's more reliable than driving in NoVa's awful traffic. But DCA is still my first choice. It's so close, taking Metro there is almost as fast as a cab.

  • 202_cyclist

    1) This article discusses development in Tysons but makes no mention of the Silver line as a catalyst for development in Reston, an area that is already quite walkable. Just in the last two weeks there has been this: and this: .

    2) I agree with other comments that reverse commuters will be a big part of the ridership for the Silver line.

    3) WMATA will have to address crowding in the system's core with or without the Silver line. DC's streetcar should help alleviate this. New regional bus routes (such as Wisconsin Avenue corridor-Rosslyn) could help alleviate this as well. Being able to pay for Capitol Bikeshare with SmartCards as well is another simple step that could reduce crowding in metro-rail's core.

    4) 52 minutes from Metro Center - Dulles might be acceptable to many passengers. Some passengers will trade convenience for time. Not having to carry a suitcase and make a transfer from the 5A bus to metro-rail will likely appeal to some riders even if it means a longer trip.

  • Zeus

    52 minutes from Metro Center? That's perfectly acceptable. Especially with rush hour traffic, driving out there can take just as long if not longer. Dulles is not a convenient airport by any standard, and Metro will be a cheap, easy, and relatively stress free way of getting there. If you're strapped for time, fly out of National.

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