The Silver Line story: A new route is born after decades of faulty planning, political paralysis

June 23

Among the many hundreds of reports written over the last half-century by the planners who conceived and designed Metro’s ever-growing rail system, there was a study dated Nov. 1, 1962, a few weeks before the first commercial jet took off from newly opened Dulles International Airport.

Signed by a transportation official in the Kennedy administration named C. Dalton Stolzenbach, the document, delivered to Congress, included a geographic layout for a dreamed-of regional rail system that looks a lot like today’s Metro subway map — but with no trains running through the then-sleepy area of Tysons Corner to the rural western edge of Fairfax County.

Nothing like Metro’s new Silver Line — which the agency announced Monday will open for passenger service on Saturday, July 26 — was in the forefront of anybody’s mind in the gestation years of rapid transit in the nation’s capital.

How the region has changed.

A rail line to Dulles “would depend almost entirely on airport and tourist patronage; it would carry virtually no commuter traffic and therefore make no contribution to the solution of the peak hour congestion” on Washington-area roads, the 1962 report said. “The more logical” rail route, eventually, would be through “the most heavily populated areas of Arlington and Fairfax,” meaning, back then, Rosslyn to Vienna, the modern Orange Line.


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

“The FAA, incidentally, is interested in the ultimate possibility of having a spur of the train line serve the airport,” Stolzenbach said at a 1963 congressional hearing, referring, in an apparent afterthought, to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“But I think that is some time in the future.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who fought for the Silver Line on Capitol Hill and, before that, as a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors starting in 1995, has a copy of Stolzenbach’s report in his digital files, a nostalgic keepsake to pull out and look at from time to time, like an old baseball card.

“Imagine that, 52 years ago!” he said. Recounting the Silver Line’s tortuous history — including a recent decade of often bitter, convoluted political warfare during which the project nearly died more than once, then five years of overbudget, behind-schedule construction of the rail line’s soon-to-open, $2.9 billion first phase — Connolly said, “It’s a morality tale, in a sense, about how really hard it is to get big things done.”

The first phase is 11.4 miles of track — the spur that Stolzenbach talked about — from the Orange Line’s East Falls Church station to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, with four stops in Tysons, a sprawling commercial hub that Kennedy-era planners wouldn’t recognize. The second phase, projected to cost $2.7 billion and open in 2018, will extend the line 11 miles to Dulles, with six stations in a no-longer-bucolic stretch of Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

Until now, the economic epicenters of the national capital region — downtown Washington and Tysons Corner — were without a rapid-transit link.

“I know this is going to sound corny,” Connolly said last week, sitting in the atrium of the Capital One tower in Tysons, staring through the glass at the new rail line’s McLean station 100 yards away. “But I look out at that now, and my heart soars.

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

‘They dropped the ball’

Zachary M. Schrag, a George Mason University historian, said traffic-choked Tysons almost certainly would be a pedestrian-friendly, less congested place today — and the bruising Silver Line battles that Connolly and others fought in the 2000s could have been avoided — if Fairfax politicians in the 1960s had thought more carefully about the future.

“I argue that they dropped the ball” in planning for Metrorail in Fairfax, said Schrag, whose 2006 book, “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro,” is a densely detailed account of the transit system’s birth and development.

Fairfax County’s population more than quadrupled, to 455,000, from 1950 to 1970. But there were no big centers of employment, and residential subdivisions were scattered, Schrag said. Although no one in the 1960s could say for sure where the county’s future economic growth would be concentrated, there were strong clues that experts recognized at the time.

Fairfax County’s population more than quadrupled, to 455,000, from 1950 to 1970. But there were no big centers of employment, and residential subdivisions were scattered, Schrag said. Although no one in the 1960s could say for sure where the county’s future economic growth would be concentrated, there were strong clues that experts recognized at the time.

The Capital Beltway, finished in 1964, and the Dulles Access Road, constructed with the airport, converged just north of two older thoroughfares, the intersection of Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) and Route 123 (Chain Bridge Road) in quiet Tysons. “At this spot just 10 miles from downtown Washington,” Schrag wrote, “attentive planners and developers could smell Tysons’ potential.” They called it “the gateway to Washington for the jet age.”

However, Schrag said in an interview, “there can be a gap, a disconnect, between professional planners and elected politicians in any county.”

When the National Capital Transportation Agency asked each jurisdiction in the area to think decades ahead and figure out the best eventual Metrorail route within its borders, Schrag said, officials in Arlington and Montgomery counties “were in close touch with their planning staffs and thought about it holistically,” realizing that rapid transit wasn’t only about ferrying riders, but also about shaping the evolving character of communities.

The result, many years later, were thriving, walkable, quasi-urban shopping and nightlife districts such as Clarendon and downtown Bethesda.

In Fairfax, where supervisors are elected in geographic districts,, the board delegated the task of identifying a future rail route to four members. Schrag said their decision was heavily constituent-driven and meant to “serve existing residential concentrations,” without regard to how the county might change in the decades to come.

Based largely on what the counties wanted, a blueprint of eventual train routes was adopted in 1968, showing, in Northern Virginia, a rail line running from Rosslyn to Falls Church. From there, instead of turning northwest toward Tysons, the line continues west to Nutley Street in Vienna.

“Once the map was locked down, any major changes would not be impossible, but very difficult,” Schrag said. “The goal of the region was to complete the system. Anything else would have to wait.” In 1979, the Orange Line from Rosslyn to Ballston opened. And in 1986, in keeping with the original plan, it was extended through Falls Church to Vienna.

Meanwhile, as Tysons Corner emerged as a regional economic behemoth, it was entirely oriented to the automobile.

“It could have been so much better,” Schrag said. “It would not have been maybe as close to a textbook example of transit-oriented development as Bethesda or Clarendon, which are literally in the textbooks . . . . I mean, all this depends on your values. But if you like cities, if you like walking, if you like cycling, if you don’t like traffic jams and strip malls and car dealerships, it would have been a lot better.”

He said, ““So now we’ve got this multibillion-dollar fix, to correct an oversight.”

Stalled by politics

Through the 1980s,and into the ’90s,— long after Stolzenbach mentioned a Dulles rail line in congressional testimony, long after Metro’s first trains started running in 1976, and long after Tysons grew up — talk of what’s now the Silver Line was just that: only talk.

Consumed for years by angry debate over development and traffic, Fairfax was far too divided to reach a consensus favoring a project as big as a rail line. In 1987, a slow-growth Democrat, Audrey Moore, ousted a pro-growth Republican, John F. “Jack” Herrity, as chairman of the Board of Supervisors, then was unseated herself in 1992 by another pro-growth Republican, Thomas M. Davis III. “The growth wars,” the era was called.

The early 1990s recession took the steam out of the fight.

“After the recovery came, the way we thought about growth began to change,” said former supervisor Katherine K. Hanley (D), a rail-line supporter who had been on the board for a decade before she replaced Davis as chairman in 1995. Whether pro-growth or anti-growth, “everybody knew there needed to be something besides roads,” Hanley said. “The county was getting so big, you just couldn’t build enough lanes to take care of all the traffic.”

Connolly was elected to Hanley’s vacated board seat a month after she became chairman.

“Every poll we did in the late 1990s showed that investment in a Dulles rail project was the single most popular transportation project in Northern Virginia, and it didn’t matter where you lived,” Connolly said. Yet “nobody believed this was going anywhere. . . . It was way too complex, the financing was impossible, and you might as well just spend your time productively on something else.”

He said “the tipping point occurred” when he, Hanley and others “helped the public imagine the future” by aggressively promoting the rail-line idea.

“We put it to people,” he said. “Can you really imagine, 20 years hence, the Dulles corridor with all the jobs, all the economic activity, all the tech companies, the federal contractors — all that with roads and no rail? I mean, wow! That’s not a future I want to imagine. And at some point, finally, it just caught the public’s attention.”

Enough reports to fill a small library had been published in previous years on the subject of a Dulles rail line. To that pile, more were added starting in the late 1990s, from agencies and commissions, task forces and study groups — from Washington to Fairfax to the Virginia Capitol — all of which helped gradually shape the contours of today’s Silver Line.

During a decade of political and bureaucratic wrangling before first-phase construction began in 2009, the biggest challenges facing rail-line supporters involved the issue of financing, the debate over whether trains should run above or below ground in Tysons, and what Connolly and others said was the U.S. Department of Transportation’s lack of enthusiasm for the project.

Given the George W. Bush administration’s philosophy that expensive endeavors like the Silver Line generally were better left to private enterprise rather than to government, federal transportation officials were “hostile to our plan more often than not,” said Connolly, who remained a county supervisor until he was elected to Congress in 2008.

“They quibbled about ridership,” he said. “They quibbled about financing. They quibbled about timelines and environmental requirements. We really had to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i,’ because they threw the book at us the whole way in terms of the various approvals, which added time and money to the project.”

The federal government agreed to contribute no more than $900 million, or 16 percent of the overall $5.6 billion cost of the two-phase project, in addition to providing low-interest loans for the second phase.

As for local financing, a key element was the creation of a special tax district. Rail supporters had to persuade 51 percent of landowners along the Dulles corridor to agree to foot a big part of the bill. The landowners would have to petition the Virginia General Assembly, asking lawmakers to allow Fairfax supervisors and the Herndon Town Council to impose a tax on them, after which the supervisors and the council would have to vote to do it.

“Well,” said Connolly, “you can imagine how easy that is.”

Wrenches in the plan

A group of 34 Fairfax landowners called Landowners Economic Alliance for the Dulles Extension of Rail, based in Tysons, mustered the 51 percent support. The Virginia General Assembly approved the plan, and the Board of Supervisors voted to create the tax district.

But in a unanimous vote that stunned proponents of the rail project, the Herndon Town Council, in December 2003, vetoed the tax plan.

Landowners along the Dulles corridor in Herndon, west of Tysons, worried that the rail line might never reach their properties — that they would wind up chipping in money for a project mainly beneficial to their business competitors in Tysons.

“Tonight, this project is dead,” former Virginia governor and U.S. senator Charles S. Robb (D), a co-chairman of LEADER, declared after the Herndon vote.

Almost dead, but not quite.Eventually, after much protracted political maneuvering, Connolly said, “we were able to bifurcate it and have two tax districts,” including a separate district in Herndon, so that landowners there will pay only for what they get. “Which took more time,” Connolly said, “and then that impacted the construction schedule.”

Virginia transportation officials gave control of the project to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. The first-phase building work was done by a group of contractors led by construction giant Bechtel. In addition to the special tax on landowners, revenue from the Dulles Toll Road has been used to pay for the rail line.

A long fight in the mid-2000s over whether to build an underground rail tunnel through Tysons, instead of an elevated platform, also nearly scuttled the project.

Both sides in the debate agreed that a tunnel would be ideal. But a tunnel also would be far more expensive than a platform, which already had been planned and approved. Hanley recalled that federal financing was dependant on a strict cost­benefit analysis. She and others, including Connolly, argued at the time that the added cost of building a tunnel would cause Bush’s Transportation Department to withdraw funding for the project.

“Some people genuinely thought we should spend the money and do it right, which would have been fine, if we had the money,” said Hanley, who left the Fairfax Board of Supervisors in 2003 and later served as secretary of the commonwealth. “But there were also people fighting to move it underground simply because they knew that would kill it.”

Connolly said his faith that the rail line someday would be built “never wavered,” although he came close to despair during the above-ground vs. below-ground battle.

“The Bush administration made it very clear to us that if we reapplied to design this as a tunnel, we would go to the very end of the line in the approval process [for new transit projects nationally], and it would be another 15 years before we got a decision, and there was no guarantee it would be funded,” Connolly said.

“Remember, by this point we had clawed all the way to the front of the list.”

In 2006, former Fairfax supervisor and U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R) and a fellow Northern Virginia Republican, U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, warned then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) that the idea of moving the rail line underground in Tysons put the project’s future in grave jeopardy. And Kaine soon announced that the tunnel plan was off the table.

“Getting through those years was a chore,” said Connolly. “I mean, those were really hard years. We had to just simply tough it out. And we did.”

Schrag, the Metro historian, wonders what might have been.

“If you go out to the new Spring Hill station on the Silver Line, for instance, it’s surrounded by automobile dealerships,” he said, referring to one of the four new stations in Tysons. “If that station opened, say, in 1985, where there are now a lot of car dealers, you’d see, I think, some buildings that really took advantage of the Metro. Now it’s going to be decades, most likely, before we see that kind of thing.”

But Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, like Connolly,, disagreed. He envisions pockets of Tysons evolving rapidly into destinations resembling Clarendon and Bethesda.

“I’ve seen this before in my career,” said Sarles, a longtime transit engineer and administrator who became Metro’s top manager in 2010, a year after the Silver Line groundbreaking. “The strip malls will disappear quickly. And the car dealerships that are right next to the stations, they won’t be there in five years. That’s all going away.”

As for Hanley, she isn’t sure what to think.

“I guess the most exciting part for me is, we don’t know yet all the changes that are going to take place. There are going to be changes. It’ll be terrific to see what they are.”

SECTION: {section=local, subsection=trafficandcommuting}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=local, subsection=trafficandcommuting}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments