Nearly finished transit projects in D.C. and Virginia still have no opening dates

Robert Thomson
Columnist November 9, 2013

“We’re close to the finish line,” Pat Nowakowski, the executive director of the Dulles Metrorail project, said as the first week of November began.

Meanwhile, D.C. Chief Engineer Ronaldo T. “Nick” Nicholson said the city’s streetcar project on H Street and Benning Road NE is in “the last four minutes of the fourth quarter.”

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

Whatever sports metaphor you pick, the D.C. region’s two major transit projects have reached a similar zone. Each is wrapping up construction and approaching a final testing phase. Each needs to get operators and staff familiar with the systems and have the federal government sign off on their safety.

Each is going to open somewhat later than optimists had projected.

Neither project has set a specific target date for passenger service, though we know it won’t be in 2013. But the exact start dates won’t be as important as satisfying the long-term customers.

These high-profile programs represent major commitments to transit, and people across the nation who care about the future of urban transportation will be watching to see how they turn out.

For the projects’ managers, today’s efforts are phase one of bigger things to come. By the end of the decade, the Metrorail Silver Line will reach Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County. The District sees the streetcar line as the first step in creating a 22-mile network stretching from east of the Anacostia River to Takoma, Georgetown and Buzzard Point.

Managers are gaining experience from the first phases. Nowakowski can see that putting the Silver Line through Dulles Airport “will be the Tysons of phase two.” Lessons learned in building the line through one heavily used part of Northern Virginia will help when it comes to pushing it through another such area.

The District’s program is gaining experience acquiring streetcars, setting up training and maintenance facilities, and putting in the wires, poles and power substations that will support a street-level transit network. Before the end of this year, Nicholson hopes, the program will be testing the streetcars along H Street and Benning Road.

These projects also break patterns in ways that will be very important to commuters as well as to the people planning other transportation systems.

The four Silver Line stations in Tysons don’t come with big commuter parking lots or garages. This will defy the expectations of suburban commuters. They don’t see Metro as a substitute for driving. It’s a supplement.

The Silver Line plan for Tysons asks commuters to change their behavior by doing something other than drive a car to a train station. Fairfax County and Metro have reorganized bus lines to ferry commuters to the new stations, including the end of the line station at Wiehle Avenue in the Reston area, the only station that does come with a parking garage.

That plan must work as of Day One. Bus drivers will need to know their new routes and commuters will need to know the buses’ new destinations. A big educational program is still in the works.

The District’s phase one is much smaller. The first streetcar line is 2.4 miles, compared to the Silver Line’s nearly 12 miles of additional track in Fairfax County. But the District Department of Transportation has the daunting challenge of testing and then operating its streetcars in the midst of regular traffic, something the Silver Line will never face.

And it’s not just that the city hasn’t operated streetcars in half a century. Pedestrians, cyclists and car drivers in Northeast Washington also will have a lot to learn about mingling with these 66-foot-long metal objects coming down the tracks about every 10 minutes.

Here again, there’s a lot of education, as well as training, that needs to happen before opening day in 2014.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com drgridlock@washpost.com .

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