With the opening of the Silver Line just days away, it’s easy to forget just how close it came to not happening at all.
The federal money almost dried up. There was endless sparring over whether the tracks should run above ground or below — and how many buildings should be built around them. Officials in Maryland and the District, who have to foot part of bill for operating the new line, could have balked. Some Virginia legislators wanted to privatize the Dulles Toll Road — the project’s cash cow — and use the proceeds elsewhere.
But after years of struggle, something remarkable is about to happen: All the flubs and machinations and fights over money are giving way to the simple act of swiping a SmarTrip card and hopping on a train.
On Wednesday, the rush was on to prepare for a day decades in the making.
A window worker with steely nerves and orange shades latched himself to the top of the new 22-story Tysons Tower office building, readying himself to make some final tweaks before the first passengers step off a Silver Line train Saturday.
Off to the east, the Washington Monument poked up through the haze. On the street below Tysons Tower, Matt Rowan walked past the Lord & Taylor and through a grinding symphony of construction noise, the surround sound of Northern Virginia in a time of upheaval and promise.
“It’s the first time Tysons has actually started to look like a real city,” said Rowan, a designer who was headed for a meeting with the skyscraper’s first tenant. The global satellite company Intelsat moved to the sleek glass tower beside the Tysons Corner Center mall last week from its Van Ness campus in the District.
“Growing up here, I saw it get bigger and not better. The nature of the place didn’t change,” Rowan said. “It was one of those weird, strip-mall-type cities. . . . This is the first time I’m saying, ‘Oh, I can come here and actually walk around and connect.’ ”
But Virginia nearly missed out.
In January 2008, Dulles rail died.
“Dead as a doornail,” said then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who is now a U.S. senator.
After decades of effort, the top federal transit official — citing far-reaching financial risks and concerns about the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s fitness to handle the project — decided to pull $900 million in federal funding.
But then-Sen. John Warner (R), an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had done a little intelligence gathering on the federal transit chief’s boss: Transportation Secretary Mary Peters.
Warner learned that the George W. Bush appointee loved roaring through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains on her motorcycle, and thought, “She’s one of us.”
He had Kaine hammer the same theme.
Kaine spent a week laboring over an eight-page letter making the commonwealth’s case to Peters. He showed up in her office beside the new Nationals baseball stadium.
She shook the governor’s hand and said, “You’ve done everything we’ve told you to do, so we shouldn’t be telling you no,” Kaine recalled.
Then Peters overruled her transit chief.
A little Virginia charm, and lot of pressure, had revived a project that is set to open this weekend. Kaine called it “the single hardest project I’ve ever been involved with in public life.”
But one with big dividends.
“It has the double virtue of really helping the regional economy and ultimately enabling Dulles to be all it can be,” Kaine said.
Still, many observers expect to encounter more problems as the next multibillion-dollar phase of the project — which will extend the Silver Line from Metro’s new Wiehle-Reston East station to Dulles International Airport and into eastern Loudoun County — moves ahead.
“The Dulles rail project has already died two dozen deaths, and probably a few more are to come before Phase 2 is done,” said Pierce R. Homer, who was Virginia’s secretary of transportation during a pivotal period in the late 2000s.
Homer’s father, who had been a city manager in Rochester, N.Y., took the family on a trip to see the innovative planned community of Reston being built in the 1960s.
“My father went off the road and said: ‘I want you guys to see this. This is the future of America,’ ” Homer said. “The Reston town lake was a little muddy hole in the ground. It was very funny.”
Many more-traditional developments that flourished on the edge of urban areas in the decades since have created alluring places to live, with good schools and safe streets. But some such projects also have raised questions about environmental and other consequences of such far-flung living, because of the way they sliced into scenic open spaces or spurred exhaust-belching and soul-killing traffic snarls.
Planners hope that stretching the Silver Line through Tysons, along the tech-heavy Dulles corridor and eventually to the airport will help concentrate new development around the stations in Tysons and elsewhere. They hope that a new city will rise out of the Route 7 sprawl.
There’s a long way to go.
Although construction is ubiquitous in Tysons and there’s a kinetic vibe in all the action, actually creating appealing places to spend precious free time — and money — takes much more than glass and steel and investment. It takes time and a bit of soul. A few promising pockets are already emerging in Tysons, but it took Arlington County, long seen as a leader in creating lively communities near Metro stations, decades to evolve.
Jordan Goldstein, the lead architect for Tysons Tower, said people may be surprised.
“It’s not going to be flick a switch and everything changes. But it will build momentum over time,” Goldstein said. He added that new “development and connectivity” around Silver Line stations is likely to occur “at a quicker rate than people think,” in part because large numbers of younger workers, research shows, don’t want cars. And places that want to attract them have to change to be competitive, he said.
Goldstein, managing director of the Washington office of Gensler, the architecture and design firm, grew up in Rockville, and his parents would drive him to Tysons to go to the mall.
“This is an example of the Metro giving a reason — and opportunity — for the transformation of an area that can truly benefit from it,” Goldstein said. “I look at Tysons now as an area that is not a distant suburb but an interconnected extension of an urban area.”
The 550,000-square-foot tower has a soaring two-level lobby. The first level opens on the ground floor, near mall parking. The second level connects to an elevated outdoor plaza that hovers above and is at roughly the same level as the elevated Silver Line tracks.
Many advocates argued strenuously that the tracks through Tysons should run underground — just as they do in downtown Washington — so the surroundings wouldn’t be dominated by elevated track. But tunneling is expensive.
Warner — who is 87 and remembers getting farm-fresh vegetables, eggs and ice cream on outings to Tysons with his father — said he left it to local authorities to sort out where the track would go. But with federal funding precarious, officials eventually decided to stay above ground.
The elevated plaza is one solution. A bridge extending over 10 traffic lanes connects the plaza to the new Tysons Corner Metro station.
On the plaza are native plants and metal birds, plus a Shake Shack, a mall entrance and an entrance to an under-construction housing tower. Concerts are planned.
Warner said he hopes that development along the Silver Line will be done “tastefully — architecturally, culturally and environmentally.”
“And make it something not only Virginia can be proud of, but the whole country can be proud of,” he said, “because, believe me, the taxpayers of 49 other states are kicking in a little bit here.”