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Silver Line extension to Dulles Airport likely to open around February, Metro says

Part of the Silver Line extension, near the future Innovation Center station.
Part of the Silver Line extension, near the future Innovation Center station. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The Silver Line extension will become a commuter reality early next year, Metro officials said Thursday, opening months after vaccinated workers are expected to return to office buildings across the Washington region.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority plans to hand over the line’s long-delayed second phase to Metro on Labor Day. Metro planners told board members Thursday that it would take an additional five months for testing and preparations on the 11-mile extension between Reston and Loudoun County before it’s ready for customers.

That timeline would put the opening in February.

“What we’re looking at is early 2022, first quarter in calendar 2022, as the likely start of operations,” said Laura Mason, Metro’s executive vice president for capital delivery.

Opening dates for the Silver Line have come and gone since 2016 — the first estimated opening date — before it was postponed four times, saddled by construction mistakes, defects and disagreements over how to correct them.

The extension, which includes six stations and a long-desired rail connection to Dulles International Airport, is key to the flourishing tech corridor along the line. The repeated delays have frustrated developers and government officials, who hoped the line would be ready before thousands more workers begin commuting to offices again, likely later this year.

That seems unlikely under the latest timetable for the beleaguered project.

Jeff C. McKay, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said delays have brought “extraordinary frustration” to the county’s business and civic communities.

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“I think there would be more of an uproar if we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic,” said McKay (D-At Large). “Right now, people forget how bad traffic in our region is and how helpful transit is, and so I think the outrage would be even greater if we were in normal times.”

The project first was delayed in 2014 by the airports authority’s decision to follow new state and federal rules for storm-water management, rather than using previous regulations as it was allowed to do. That decision added 13 months and $137 million in costs. Cracks in concrete, defective rail ties, wrong platform dimensions and hundreds of incorrectly made precast concrete panels piled on more problems.

Some of those issues are among 17 items that Metro officials say still need to be resolved with Phase Two, including about 5,000 cracked cover brackets over the track’s electrified third rail. That accounts for 13 percent of the cover brackets in the Silver Line extension.

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Transit agency leaders also have concerns over what Metro says is an insufficient distance between signals and insulated joints that ensure safe train movement. Metro specifications indicate they should be spaced between seven and nine feet apart, but the contractor installed 67 of the 71 signals six feet or closer from insulated joints.

“This is an important issue for us as the insulated joint is what separates track circuits and allows our signaling system to know whether or not a portion of tracks is occupied or not,” Mason said.

The lack of adequate distance could cause increased risk of trains overrunning red signals, she said. Mason said Metro will review each signal to determine which ones should be moved and what other mitigation steps might be possible in other circumstances.

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If the spacing and other issues can be resolved by Labor Day, she said, Metro would need up to five months to prepare for opening.

Testing will take about two months, followed by about 90 days to staff and train workers. Tasks also include familiarizing workers and first responders with the new stations and track alignment, completing required safety certifications, and preparing stations and parking for customers.

After hearing the report Thursday, Metro board members concluded that the Silver Line was not likely to open this year.

“Is it safe to say that it probably wouldn’t be any sooner than January of ’22, given all the things you’ve outlined here?” asked board member and Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles).

“I think that’s a safe assumption,” Mason responded.

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Michael Rocks, owner and developer of Innovation South — a 1.67 million-square-foot mixed-use complex at Innovation Station along Phase Two — said the repeated delays have hurt efforts to find tenants and businesses to move to the Silver Line corridor.

But, he said, he views the delays as a short-term problem in the larger scope of the project.

“Has the Metro delay from 2018 to now had an impact on development? Of course,” he said. “I mean, you’d be crazy not to say so, but the belief that Metro is going to bring enormous benefits has superseded those concerns.”

Metro board members on Thursday also said they were grateful that Congress passed the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan that President Biden signed earlier in the day. The relief package included $30.5 billion for transit nationwide, including $1.4 billion for the Washington region.

Board members said they don’t know how much of that Metro will receive, but the money will stave off severe cuts the agency had been considering next year.

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“While the portion of that funding that will come to Metro is still under review, it is likely Metro will be able to avoid service cuts in January 2022 that are part of the current proposed budget,” said the Metro board’s Finance Committee chairman, Steve McMillin.

He said Metro will consider a new budget plan in April.

Board members also received a safety report that showed the transit system was performing better in almost all facets compared with 2019. While the dearth of passengers during the pandemic has contributed to a safer system, Metro officials said it also has performed better in a number of other areas when taking passenger levels into account.

The one exception: Overrunning red signals, which is a continuous problem for train operators. Over the past year and a half, failure to stop during a red signal or stop order has contributed to multiple incidents, including an after-hours collision in fall 2019.

From July to December last year, Metro recorded 10 red signal overruns, compared with five during the same period in 2019, Metro statistics show.

In response, Metro Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader said software has been updated in 7000-series trains to help prevent overruns while Metro also installs a similar system in 6000-series trains. He said Metro has purchased 20 simulators to retrain rail operators, the first four of which will arrive in March.

“These simulators will allow us to train operators for the worst-case scenario and help combat complacency by ensuring train operators can operate during not-normal scenarios,” Leader said.