Fifty years in the planning, more than five years in construction and $150 million over budget, the most expensive transportation project in the Washington region’s history rolled down 11.7 miles of new track Saturday.
“Welcome aboard the Silver Line!” Metro General Manager Richard Sarles declared, introducing a long list of speakers at the dedication ceremony in a tent at the new Wiehle-Reston East station in Reston. “It’s time to ride!”
Achieved at a cost of $46,943 per foot, the Metro line extension in Virginia is to expand by an additional 11 miles by 2018, connecting the rail system to Dulles International Airport.
The first phase — five new stations, four in Tysons Corner and one in Reston — cost $2.9 billion; extending the line to the airport and into Loudoun County is expected to cost $2.7 billion more.It eclipses in cost the region’s three most recent mega-projects, the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the $2 billion Capital Beltway express lanes and the $676 million spent to untangle the Springfield interchange.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx compared the project with the decades-long process of building medieval cathedrals, saying that those involved with the masterpieces often weren’t around at the end.
“What I’m reminded of is that the work of transportation is really the work of generations,” Foxx said. “And if we’re not putting those cornerstones in place as a nation, we’re not building for the generations to come afterward. So this is a time to celebrate the voices of ‘yes’ sounding louder than the voices of ‘no.’ ”
He noted that the federal government’s $900 million investment in the Silver Line’s first phase is projected to spur billions in economic development.
“This is a win for America. And we need more wins like it,” Foxx said.
It wasn’t an easy win.
“Nineteen years ago there weren’t many believers,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who first fought for the project as chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “We were sued; hey, some of the people who sued us are in this room.”
It is hoped that the Silver Line will transform the areas surrounding its stations, creating transit-oriented communities in a region of Northern Virginia where the daily commute has been dominated by cars.
“That transformation will be most prominent in Tysons, where a traffic-choked suburban office park with two large malls is planned to become a walkable, urban center with 100,000 residents and 200,000 jobs,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said he is open to the possibility of his state contributing more money to phase two of the project.
“This is going to be a game-changer for Virginia,” McAuliffe said, adding that the new line would improve the quality of life for many Virginians. “This is as big as it gets.”
He thanked Foxx for the nearly $2 billion in federal loans to help pay for the project’s second phase and added that on the VIP train ride over, “I worked him the entire time” for more federal money.
“He wants to suck up all the money for Virginia!” Foxx said.
Metro officials said they were pleased with the way things went.
“All of us at Metro are excited and proud that the Silver Line is off to a great start on its opening day,” spokesman Dan Stessel said. “I am pleased to report that trains are running smoothly without any major issues to note. It was truly gratifying to see the reaction of local residents this afternoon as they entered their new stations for the first time. From our perspective, it has been a near-flawless day.”
A tranquil weekend in late July gave Metro respite to test the system, but it will feel the weight of the morning commute Monday, albeit during a rush hour in the dead of summer.
A commute from the western end of the line, at the Wiehle-Reston East station, to Metro Center, in the middle of downtown Washington, takes riders through five new stations and 10 old stations. From Metro Center, the Silver Line continues east, sharing eight stations with the Blue and Orange lines. After the Stadium-Armory station, the Orange Line turns northeast toward New Carrollton and the Silver and Blue lines share a track and five station stops until the lines end at Largo Town Center.
About noon Saturday, when the gates opened, several hundred people were in line outside the Wiehle station’s north entrance, waiting to board the inaugural train.
Not all were able to get on. One who did was Anand Patel, 45, a civil engineer who lives in Ashburn, Va. He drove to Wiehle with his 11-year-old son, Arab, and waited three hours.
“I worked on this project for six years,” he said. “It’s amazing that something I worked on is finally real. It’s the most joyous feeling to see that people are actually here on the train.”
Steven Renard said his family delayed a trip to Bethany Beach, Del., so they could attend the opening-day festivities. He brought photos of train travels with his 5-year-old son, Grant, including one of him sitting in the engineer’s seat on a train in Toronto.
“This is so exciting,” Renard said.
It was a good day to be a transit nerd, said Stephanie Taylor, who along with three friends was among the first to ride on the Silver Line.
“I love, love public transportation,” she said, just after snapping a selfie aboard the train. Taylor, a traffic engineer for Arlington County, said she owns a car but takes public transportation whenever she can.
Nick Dowsett, 58, of Reston, also got aboard the first train after a morning-long wait outside the Wiehle station.
“This is a very significant day for Reston, a very significant chapter, and I wanted to be part of it,” he said.
Dowsett works for IntelSat, a satellite-services company, which moved its headquarters from the District to a new office tower adjacent to the Tysons Corner station.
Which means Dowsett’s commute is suddenly much shorter.
“So it’s not only a significant day for Reston — it’s a significant day for me,” he said.
Eric Goldstein, waving a Silver Line pennant, said he took a bus from Ballston to Tysons to board a Silver Line train.
“After today, you can never be the first one,” said Goldstein, 24. “Hopefully the Silver Line will run well for a while before it has problems.”
Like any other day on Metro, there were glitches and malfunctions. A broken escalator — a virtual icon in the annals of the system’s woes — slowed riders from the gates to the bus exit at the new McLean station.
A maintenance worker fiddled with a broken fare card machine at Tysons Corner.
And trains were delayed, if only slightly — one to allow a train filled with VIPs to go first.
“Didn’t expect the first day to go smoothly, did you?” cracked a Metro transit cop.
At the Largo station — the eastern end of the Silver Line — about 30 people waited to be among the first to ride a westbound train. They groaned in disappointment every time a non-Silver Line train pulled into the station. Metro station officials told the crowd the ceremonies were running long in Tysons, and they were waiting for permission to switch arriving Orange or Blue line trains to Silver as they left the station.
Reggie Watkins, 50, of Upper Marlboro, Md., was embarking on a test ride from Largo to his office in Tysons to see if the Silver Line would work for his Monday morning commute. Watkins, an engineer, wanted to see if the trip would take longer than his one-hour commute by car.
“If it takes longer than driving, it’s not going to happen,” Watkins said.
He said he was a bit concerned when the first Silver Line train left Largo about 20 minutes late.
“It’s messed up already,” Watkins said, “but I know they need to get the kinks out.”
Nicole Nixon, 36, of District Heights, Md., brought her two sons to the Largo station so they could be among the first to take the Silver Line heading west. Her 8-year-old, Carlos Barnhart, is “infatuated” with trains and has been following the Silver Line’s progress on TV, she said. Carlos wants to work for Metro when he grows up.
“It’s like one of the funnest things I’ve done in my whole entire life,” said Carlos, a rising fourth-grader at Benjamin D. Foulois Creative and Performing Arts Academy in Prince George’s County. “This will be my first time getting on a brand-new train line.”
In the seat in front of them, Christopher R. Payne took in the idea that he was riding a new line that he said he helped build. Payne said he worked on the Silver Line as an electrician for nine months, before he had to leave in 2013 because of a health problem.
Payne, 51, of Bowie, Md., said he helped connect the tracks to each new Silver Line station’s electrical source.
“I just wanted to ride it,” Payne said as the Orange turned Silver Line train headed out of Largo. “I pulled a lot of heavy wire for this. . . . I’ve got a lot of pride in this.”
Before Saturday, Darlene Smith had never visited the Tysons Corner Center mall. “I never drove out here because it’s too much traffic,” said Smith, 50.
On Saturday morning she left her home in the Fort Totten neighborhood in Northwest Washington, rode a Red Line train to Metro Center and transferred to the Silver Line. Within an hour of leaving home she was standing on the gleaming marble floors at Lord & Taylor, a five-minute walk from the Tysons Corner station.
“It was easy,” she said.
Smith and her 85-year-old father, Monroe Smith, went to the mall to have lunch and spend the day shopping. Darlene was looking for a new shirt and hoping “to catch the last-minute summer sales. I love shopping. I love it out here.”
A few hours after the inaugural-train hoopla ended — after the VIPs had departed and the noontime first riders had taken their ride, and a lazy Saturday quiet had descended on the five new Silver Line stations — here came Michael Cohen and his wife, Rosanna, into the Spring Hill station, a structure so modern, airy and filled with light that it brings to mind an airport terminal.
“Gorgeous,” said Rosanna Cohen, 59, an interior designer.
“Really is gorgeous,” said her husband, also 59, a lobbyist in the Washington office of insurance giant AIG.
The native New Yorkers have lived since 1986 in a house about 11 / 2 miles from the Spring Hill station. For more than a quarter-century, he has fought traffic into the District. But no more. His and his wife’s subway has finally arrived.
“Whenever I’m New York, even now, I don’t go anywhere except on the subway,” Michael Cohen said. “I’ve been waiting for it for years.”
Luz Lazo, Patricia Sullivan, T. Rees Shapiro, Katherine Shaver, Karen Chen, Ileana Najarro, Bill Turque and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.