When it comes to business, the areas around Dulles International and Reagan National airports couldn’t differ more, a hospitality executive told business and government leaders recently.
Hotel rooms are booked fast in Crystal City near the robust National airport, a vibrant employment center with access to multiple modes of transit. Combined, those factors make the perfect equation for strong hotel occupancy rates, said Mark Carrier, president of B.F. Saul Company Hospitality Group, which owns hotels near Reagan and Dulles.
By contrast, it’s a challenge to fill rooms near Dulles where business is down dramatically. The area around the airport is car-centric and lacks the vast public transit options available near National. Hotel rooms were built around the idea that by now Dulles would have 30 million to 35 million passengers annually, Carrier said last week at a transportation forum in Tysons. Last year, 21.6 million passengers flew through Dulles, a significant drop from 27 million in 2005.
“The employment growth immediately around the airport is not as robust either and as a result it is a challenge,” he said.
But Metro’s Silver Line, scheduled to arrive at Dulles in 2020, provides hope that it could contribute to turning that around. The rail extension to Loudoun County is projected to drive up economic development in the Dulles corridor, boosting not only current businesses but also the airport’s growth opportunities.
“There’s already what we call transit-oriented development around where the Metro stops will be,” said Buddy Rizer, director of economic development for Loudoun County. “Metro being there is just going to take all of these developments to the next level.”
The real estate development firm Comstock Partners, for example, is building a mixed-use development at the site of the last stop of the Silver Line. The company recently delivered the fourth building at the site, which includes an 11-screen movie theater, restaurants and housing, Maggie Parker, a company executive said.
“Transit certainly makes sense and means business,” she said at the forum sponsored by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. The company partnered with Fairfax County to deliver the Wiehle-Reston East transit center last year, which became a platform for a community that includes office, hotel and retail space, along with residences at the Metro station. The economic activity at Wiehle and along the corridor since Metro arrived last July, she said, “has been remarkable.”
If the area around the new five Metro stations that opened last year— four in Fairfax and one Reston— is any indication of the success that passenger rail could bring to the larger Dulles corridor, the area is in for good news, officials say. Silver Line riders in Tysons get a good view of the growth as they cranes and other active and see tall buildings are emerging. Of the 100 million-square-feet of development planned for the area, about 20 million is under construction, officials say.
Carrier, who serves as chair of the Tysons Partnership board of directors, said the two hotels his company owns in Tysons are seeing a resurgence and “a good deal of that is attached to the excitement of Metro.”
A good sign that transit-oriented development is working in Fairfax County is in the increase of reverse commutes in the area, Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said. Metro riders are not only taking the train to get to Washington, but many are getting off in the new stations in Reston and Tysons. That trend, she said, will expand when the second phase of the Silver Line is completed.
“The Dulles corridor market will begin to change completely and the airport will have the support that it needs to thrive,” said Hudgins, who also serves on Metro’s board of directors. The connectivity brought by Metro service will create more opportunity for the type of mixed-use development that boosts business and could potentially help turn around the troubled fortunes of Dulles.
But “will rail to Dulles change that?” Carrier asked. It is part of a complex puzzle, he said. The airport’s authority faces many challenges including the fact that fewer people are choosing to fly through Dulles, and the airport is dealing with how to pay off billions in debt from expansion plans that have been curtailed.
Still, transit supporters say Metro is part of the solution.
“Right now at Dulles we have an airport that is kind of shading passengers, picking up internationally but losing domestically,” Carrier said. “When we are connected by rail to Dulles it will make that region a stronger region for all kinds of development and that is a key thing.”