At last, the Silver Line is ready; Metro says passenger service will start July 26

After five years of construction, Metro's new Silver Line plans to open its doors to the public on July 26. Here's a look at the some of the line's flashy features. (Editor's note: This video was filmed in November 2013, prior to Pat Nowakoski's resignation as executive director of the Silver Line project.) (Lee Powell and Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Metro plans to start carrying rail passengers July 26 on its long-awaited Silver Line, the agency said Monday, capping five years of construction and more than a decade of political fights and contentious design work on a rapid-transit link between the national capital area’s biggest economic hubs, Tysons Corner and downtown Washington.

Barring any glitches in the next month, Silver Line riders will begin boarding trains at the new Wiehle Avenue station in Reston at noon that Saturday, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said in announcing that the line’s first phase is all but finished.

Officials had envisioned setting a Silver Line opening date months ago, but the decision was put off repeatedly because of construction delays.

“I want you to know there are some caveats associated with” the planned July 26 opening, Sarles said, noting that the Silver Line’s builders have a small amount of work still to do, much of it involving document preparation.

“It’s an unlikely possibility that something could pop up between now and then,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “You can never rule it out totally. But I would not be announcing the target date unless I felt very confident that we are there.”

See where the two phases of the Silver Line will take riders.

He said, “I’m looking forward to welcoming passengers aboard the Silver Line.”

The $2.9 billion first phase is 11.4 miles of track from Wiehle Avenue to East Falls Church, where the new route meets the Orange Line. The Silver Line has one station in Reston and four in Tysons Corner, which has grown to be a traffic-snarled colossus of retail and office development in the decades since the original Metrorail system was mapped in the 1960s.

The project’s 11-mile second phase — expected to cost $2.7 billion — is due to open in 2018, with six stations that will extend the line to Dulles International Airport and into eastern Loudoun County.

Overall, the Silver Line generally follows the Dulles Access Road through the commercial heart of Fairfax County, a corridor rich with high-tech firms, government contractors and other businesses in the Washington area’s most populous jurisdiction.

Sharon Bulova (D), chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, called Sarles’s announcement “terrific news,” saying she looked forward to “being one of the first riders.” Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who also represents Virginia on Metro’s board of directors, said the new line is “a testament to the ingenuity of the entire Washington metropolitan region.”

Hudgins, whose district includes the Wiehle Avenue station, said her constituents have been “waiting for this transit option in our community” for decades.

From the East Falls Church station, the Silver Line will share tracks with the Orange Line to Rosslyn, then with the Orange and Blue lines as they cross beneath the Potomac River and run through the core of the nation’s capital. From the point where the Orange and Blue lines diverge, at the Stadium-Armory station, the Silver Line will share tracks with the Blue Line to Largo Town Center.

Timeline: The Silver Line

Timeline

Key events over the past 15 years in the development of the Silver Line. More: Latest on the Silver Line

“Today’s announcement is great news for Northern Virginia and its many thousands of commuters,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). “This is a huge and long-awaited step forward for transportation in the region.”

The Silver Line also needs final approval from the Federal Transit Administration and from the local safety watchdog entity known as the Tri-State Oversight Committee. Both are continuing their inspections of the line. Sarles said passenger service will begin as planned “if there are no significant issues that arise” from the inspections, “and thus far we have seen none.”

Metro estimates that 50,000 passenger trips each workday will begin or end at Silver Line stations from Reston to East Falls Church. About 17,000 of those trips will be taken by customers who already use the system regularly, at stations on the Orange Line. But Metro projects that about 33,000 trips will be taken by new patrons of America’s second-busiest subway system, which averages about 750,000 passenger trips per weekday.

For some riders in Virginia, at the southern end of the Blue Line and the western part of the Orange Line, the impact of the Silver Line will be a bit of an inconvenience.

The tunnel under the Potomac River can handle 26 trains per hour. Adding Silver Line trains to the mix means Metro will be forced to run fewer Orange and Blue line trains.

That won’t matter to inbound passengers at East Falls Church, Ballston, Virginia Square, Clarendon, Courthouse or Rosslyn, because both Orange and Silver Line trains will run on that stretch. However, farther out from East Falls Church — at West Falls Church, Dunn Loring and Vienna — there will be slightly fewer Orange Line trains leaving each hour. The same will be true on the Blue Line south of Rosslyn.

And the inconvenience will begin even before the Silver Line’s official opening.

In announcing the planned July 26 opening, Sarles said Metro will conduct a final test of the Silver Line with a week of “simulated service” beginning July 20. He said a full complement of Silver Line trains will run in the system throughout that week but will not carry passengers between East Falls Church and Wiehle Avenue.

More than 10 years of often bitter political battles in Fairfax, starting in the 1990s, preceded the start of construction on the Silver Line in 2009, including fights over funding and whether the rail line should run above or below ground through Tysons.

Trains there will run above ground, on an elevated platform.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is overseeing Silver Line construction, had planned to turn over the completed first phase to Metro last summer. But a series of delays, including issues with the software that controls a critical safety system, pushed the handover well into this year. Even now, Silver Line contractors have a laundry list of fixes they must complete.

“This is a welcome announcement for those who continue working together to make this important project a reality,” MWAA President and CEO Jack Potter said Monday. “The Silver Line is already a major boost to the economy of Northern Virginia and the entire metropolitan Washington region, and the start of revenue service will further that economic development.”

The delays have been costly to Metro, which has lost — an average of $2 million a month in projected Silver Line fare revenue since January. Metro has lost roughly $12 million to $18 million in total revenue.

“There’s been so much suspense about the opening since last Christmas that it’s a relief,” Metro Board Chairman Tom Downs said about Monday’s announcement. Downs said Metro has had personnel in place since last December when passenger service was originally slated to begin.

“It’s created some financial strains,” Downs said. “But now that [revenue service] is in sight, those are all more manageable.”

The first-phase construction work, which officials said is $150 million over budget, was handled by a group of contractors led by construction giant Bechtel. As recently as two weeks ago, Metro’s deputy general manager for operations, Rob Troup, complained publicly that the contractors were behind schedule with final “punch list” work items.

Last week, however, Sarles said the contractors had picked up their pace and that he was close to declaring an opening date. “It was a major project, and these things happen,” Sarles said in an interview, referring to the budget and construction problems.

“[The issues] got resolved,” he said.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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