Metro Silver Line is costing billions, but some see choices as miserly

Columnist August 6, 2014

When people hear that the Washington region is spending $5.6 billion to build a rail line out to Dulles International Airport and beyond, they might call us crazy or misguided. They don’t usually react by saying, “What a bunch of cheapskates.”

But throughout the already long history of the Silver Line project, travelers have found legitimate reasons to think that we skimped on some important things for which we could be condemned by upcoming generations.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

With the Silver Line still on its honeymoon cruise, let’s look at some of those critiques.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

It seems that many trips across the area on the Silver Line will take about an hour, plus a bus trip to get to stations without parking. The prices for bus plus subway might also discourage people.

It is too bad that Metro, which could not afford a four-track system such as New York’s, with local and express trains, could not at least afford a third track. That would have provided not only an opportunity for express trains at rush hours but also an alternative when there are breakdowns on one of the tracks.

The extension to Dulles Airport might help commuters, but it is an unattractive option for our growing senior population. After doing the ups and downs on the newish Dulles escalators from the midfield terminals and mobile lounges, I can’t imagine many folks will want to schlep their bags across the length of two football fields to get to a slow train to Washington.

The whole project was handicapped by current funding sources, but also lacked long-term vision.

Ed Kelty, Bethesda

DG: You don’t need to be a senior to appreciate the unattractiveness of putting the train station far away from where the planes land. But that decision was just one of the more recent in a timeline of cost controls.

It’s particularly annoying because the distance problem is going to be so obvious to travelers when the Silver Line’s second phase opens. But other Silver Line decisions, made with less widespread public discussion than the airport station, also are in Kelty’s sights.

Since Phase 1 of the Silver Line switched from static construction project to rolling stock, many travelers have remarked on the length of time it takes to get through the four stations in Tysons Corner on a trip from western Fairfax County toward downtown.

Planners could have made different decisions. They could have built the rail line straight out to the airport, bypassing Tysons. Or they could have built a Tysons loop extending from the main line and run local and express trains out that way.

Whatever route they chose, they could have added more tracks, both to create local/express options and to get around the train breakdowns that now plague the aging Metrorail system. But there were other choices, as well.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I cannot tell you in a family newspaper how mad I am at the whole “SV” mess. First, the politicians were too cheap to bury the structure through Tysons Corner. That means that for 50 years or so, we will have to look at that Great Wall as it ages from red brick and shiny metal to dirty gray brick and corroded metal.

The skinflints even decided not to run it to the Dulles terminal, forcing baggage-laden passengers to hump their burdens in D.C. summer heat and winter miseries.

Finally, there’s almost no parking along the line, because it was decided to use behavior modification technology to force commuters and tourists to change their behavior to suit some urban planner’s notions of proper transport.

I’ll do what I have the past 30 years. Curse traffic engineers and urban planners and drive.

Peter D. Zimmerman, Great Falls

DG: The choice not to build Metro parking garages by the Tysons stations was different from some of those other cost-saving decisions. It was based on a vision of Tysons as an urban center — a destination — rather than as a collection point for city-suburb commuters. It was a decision planners made early on, but many Northern Virginians were unaware of it until they began to focus on the opening of the five new stations.

The decision to keep the line above ground along Routes 123 and 7 through Tysons was much more of a money decision.

I think the planning decisions, such as no Metro garages in Tysons, will stand up to scrutiny from future generations. Their real targets will be the money decisions.

But survivors from our time will answer the same way the generation that built Metro answers us when we question their cost-cutting choices: Without the hard decisions they made, we wouldn’t have any transit network to complain about.

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