Silver Line weathers its first commute

Opening for workday passengers in the tranquility of mid-summer, Metro’s new Silver Line — 11.7 miles of track at a cost of $2.9 billion — weathered its first rush hours Monday with little hint of the turmoil that has plagued the region’s transit system.

There should be time to smooth out the wrinkles in the great expansion, a stab through the heart of the Northern Virginia countryside, which has blossomed into a suburban megalopolis, while Washington slumbers through the vacation season.

Few parking issues arose at the five new stations, though that could change as more riders pass through the turnstiles. A realignment of bus routes to feed the rail stations caused the most consternation, but the confusion should settle with time, officials said. It may take longer to build bike lanes for the cyclists who planners hope will flock to the system.

“There is a saying in the transit industry: You’re only as good as your last rush hour. We now have two good ones under our belt, and we’ll work to keep the trend going tomorrow,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said late Monday.

Metro estimates that by this time next summer, after a year of Silver Line service, the five new stations will have 50,000 boardings and de-boardings each weekday. Monday’s ridership numbers suggested that Metro is on its way to achieving that total, Stessel said.

From Metrorail’s 5 a.m. opening through the 7 p.m. end-of-the-evening rush, 24,309 passenger trips began or ended at the five stations, Stessel said. He said there were 12,975 boardings and 11,334 de-boardings at Wiehle-Reston East, Spring Hill, Greensboro, Tysons Corner and McLean. Wiehle Avenue was the busiest of the stations (with 7,249 boardings and 5,302 de-boardings), and Greensboro (with 1,428 boardings and de-boardings, evenly spilt) recorded the least passenger traffic, Stessel said.

Many of Monday’s customers at the new stations appeared to be Metro riders who previously used other stations. Stessel said morning departures were down 66 percent from a typical workday two weeks ago at West Falls Church, 14 percent at Dunn Loring and 19 percent at Vienna — all Orange Line stations.

“There was no stopping, no delays, no delays at all,” said Stephanie Fugate, 38, a federal worker who rode from the Silver Line’s outer-most new station — Wiehle-Reston East — to L’Enfant Plaza. The project “seemed like it took so long,” she said. “I’m glad it’s finally here.”

Standing on the Tysons Corner station platform, Karen Oltmanns described the opening as “surreal.”

“I’m excited because it seems like it’s been a long time coming,” Oltmanns said.

It was an important day for Metro, a system eager to right its record and public image after years of late trains, breakdowns and a 2009 collision of two Red Line trains that killed nine people.

More than a simple expansion of a transit system, the Silver Line was envisioned as a means to remake the suburban landscape, creating a fully realized mini-city around its four stations in Tysons.

Metro’s Silver Line rumbled to life Saturday as five new stations opened in northern Virginia. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

The rapid transit link — the most expensive transportation project in the Washington region’s history and among the largest of its kind underway in the United States — connects Tysons, Fairfax County’s economic hub, to downtown Washington and the Pentagon. It will be complete in about four years, when a $2.7 billion investment continues it to Dulles International Airport and into eastern Loudoun County.

As a result of the Silver Line, planners see Tysons growing into a business colossus, with a much larger residential base and super-charged economy based in a skyline of office towers — what economic development officials refer to as a liveable, walkable community.

“Tysons will be huge now,” said Tom Mehen, a retired foreign aid official who lives nearby in McLean. “It’s huge now, but it will become even greater.”

To foster that growth, planners provided little or limited parking around the Tysons stations, trusting that passengers would arrive aboard commuter buses, on bicycles and by foot.

“I’m concerned about how much traffic we have here and the congestion. I hope it’s a net positive,” said Chris Putman, who moved to an apartment in the middle of Tysons a year ago. “I’m just interested if the planning is going to work out in the future.”

Putman said amenities needed for a developing residential community are popping up, including nearby places to buy groceries and other staples rather than “get a Rolex or whatever it is they sell at these malls.”

Most of Monday’s problems involved bus riders who were confused by new routes or hadn’t heard that service had been shifted from West Falls Church to the Wiehle Avenue station. The route adjustments also made some commutes more expensive.

Mary McCray used to catch a bus in front of her house in Annandale and, for $1.70, get off a block from her job in customer service at Best Buy in Tysons.

“I liked the 401!” she said.

The bus driver she used to see five days a week stopped her last week to warn her that the route was changing and that her stop was being eliminated. Otherwise, McCray, like many of the other riders, she said, wouldn’t have realized there had been a change.

But her new commute, which includes going just two stops on the Silver Line, costs more than her old bus fare. The bus is $1.70. She then has to transfer to the Silver Line and pay $1.75 for the short leg to work.

She tried walking the distance instead Monday morning. It took 40 minutes. “I was so hungry, I ate my lunch for breakfast,” she said, laughing. “It was 9:30. But who wants to work eight, nine hours a day on your feet, then walk?”

She would walk rather than pay double, both ways, every day, she said. Her bus pulled up, and before she popped her earbuds back in and climbed on, she said: “I’m going to talk to my boss and see if he’ll give me a pay raise.”

A clear morning in the 70s beckoned bicycle commuters. Those who ventured out said the shortage of bike lanes may inhibit people from rush-hour riding.

Darren Kiel zipped into the Tysons Corner station, wheeling his 24-speed Trek to a stop just in front of a shiny new bike rack. Beads of sweat were clinging to his brow as he jiggled his bike lock into place.

“I felt about as good as a biker can feel in rush hour,” said Kiel, 42. “I’d really like to see more pedestrian walkways or places that could make bikers not so nervous.”

Phil Romello, 59, had planned to park his bike at bike lockers before taking the train to Dupont Circle, where he works as an actuary.

“I’d be more excited about my first Silver Line ride if they’d gotten the bike lockers available,” Romello said.

Finding parking near the stations didn’t seem to be a problem Monday morning. There’s a 2,300-space garage at Wiehle-Reston East plus a 1,000-space lot. But there is no parking at the four new stations in Tysons — McLean, Tysons Corner, Greensboro and Spring Hill.

A lot that can hold more than 300 vehicles, operated by Colonial Parking near the McLean station, had plenty of vacant spaces.

“Today there was no waiting, but it will grow tomorrow and after that as people see all these spaces,” said Zulay Barrantes, a parking attendant for Colonial.

Most Silver Line riders said they were evaluating the new service.

“I have high expectations,” said Jonathan Winebarger, 29, who woke up at 3:40 a.m. Monday to begin his commute from Gainesville. “I decided to take public transportation because it offered me a lot more time to get ready for the day.” He expected his commute to take about 90 minutes.

Pam Saunders, 54, used to drive to her job at the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

“This will take me longer, but now I don’t have to deal with all of the traffic,” Saunders said at the McLean Metro station. “And look at the view. It’s all beautiful.”

Chuck Ramey left his car parked in his Ashburn driveway on a workday for the first time Monday, swapping his sometimes two-hour drive to Ballston for a 50-minute ride on the Silver Line.

“I told people at work, ‘We’ll see how the adventure goes; I’m taking Metro,’ ” said Ramey, a manager at a defense health-care agency, where most of his colleagues drive to the office. “I think some of them were jealous.”

The added Silver Line trains meant fewer Blue Line trains headed for the Virginia suburbs, but many Blue Line riders were philosophical about their reduced service.

“It’s still better than being out there on I-95,” said Jeff Booth of Alexandria.

Despite the billions of dollars in Silver Line investment, the car remained king in Tysons and the rest of the region. Although transit ridership is up, most people still drive to work — and in suburban communities such as Fairfax County, only a tiny fraction use public transportation.

“I’m hoping it takes some cars off the road so I can drive to work in less traffic,” said Scott Melville, a health-care trade association president who drove past the new Tysons Corner station in his convertible.

He said he often takes the Metro once he’s downtown. But given the limited parking at many of the new stations, he would have to take a commuter bus to the new line.

“It’s really not faster for me. But for a lot of other people, it is,” Melville said. “We all hope it reduces automobile traffic.”

At the Gulf filling station across the street from the Tysons Corner station Monday, drivers were calculating their commuting-pain threshold in dollars and, more important for many, in minutes.

“It doesn’t do anything for me going downtown,” said Chris Button, who commutes from Northern Virginia to the Department of Homeland Security’s headquarters in the District. “We want to like it. It looks nice up there, and it seems like a good idea.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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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