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Opinion Instead of building the Silver Line, Metro should have fixed the system it had

Track work underway on the Orange/Silver line along I-66 in Falls Church, Virginia Saturday June 4, 2016. (Photo by J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

I should never have been born.

That’s the self-recriminating murmur you might have heard rumbling from the tracks of the new Silver Line as you rode in a nearly empty car, even before this month’s massive rebuilding program began.

It’s a lament that’s been picked up by riders and others often during Metro’s progressive meltdown over the past year or so. But now that SafeTrack has kicked in, and the entire region is paying a steep price for years of neglect, you hear this refrain about the Silver Line even more.

Your video guide for riding the Silver Line during Metro's overhaul (Video: Claritza Jimenez, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)

The Silver Line was Washington’s most expensive transportation project ever. Fewer people than projected now pay to ride — even worse than we discovered last year. And its terminus is still miles from Dulles International Airport and it doesn’t stop in a transit-friendly walkable community — and, no, not Tysons Corner. But, hey, those big real estate developers have sure made bank.

The argument goes that Metro’s leadership should have focused instead on overhauling and upgrading the nearly 40-year-old system before adding a new line in Northern Virginia. The Silver Line was a project either years before its time — or too late. And now there are plenty of people around eager to say, I told you so.

SafeTrack is bad enough. Please don’t be rude while riding.

One of those critics is Thomas A. Rubin, a consultant who was a former chief financial officer for what is now the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Rubin said the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is not unlike other mass transit agencies in opting to invest in sparkling new rail instead of fixing the rusty system in place. But he said Metro may be “the worst” in its decision-making compared to other agencies, and he called its investment in the Silver Line “obviously foolish.”

“WMATA’s big initiative was to build a new rail line out to Dulles while the current one is suffering from very, very serious capital renewal and replacement problems,” Rubin said. “What the heck are you doing?”

The Silver Line also cannibalized service from the Blue and Orange lines, he said. All three lines still have to squeeze through the same tunnel to cross the Potomac River, so something had to give when the new line went in – and that was capacity on the Orange and Blue lines.

Rubin sees the nearly two-year-old line as a $2.9 billion monument to misplaced priorities. But those are also political priorities, and few politicians and civic boosters hold ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo ops for costly initiatives to fix up aging infrastructure.

“It ain’t the way it works,” Rubin said said in an interview earlier this year and emails. “If you’re a politician you want to be at the groundbreaking or ribbon cutting of something new.”

The Silver Line opened for passenger service in July 2014 after five years of construction and 50 years of planning. The 11.7-mile project came in at a cost of $46,943 per foot and  budget overruns of $226 million. It added five new stations, with four in Tysons Corner and one in Reston. The next leg, extending the line an additional 11.4 miles to the airport and into Loudoun County, is expected to cost $2.7 billion.

So far, however, Silver Line ridership has been well below the 740,000 forecast for its first year — as in more than 30 percent off, Metro officials said last year. Average daily ridership had been projected at 25,000 a day, according to the final environmental impact statement. In reality, the line has so far peaked at 17,000 riders within a year after its opening, according to Metro.

More recent data are worse. Fairfax County  Transportation Department director Tom Biesiadny, in a June 7 memo to the county Board of Supervisors that cites Metro data, said ridership fell to 12,128 entries in January, a 7 percent drop from the previous year. The memo notes that this is usually a tough month for ridership and the blizzard was a significant factor, too.

But despite the lower-than-projected ridership, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova says critics have it all wrong, especially the ones who say that Metro should have found a more favorable time to build the line.

“My question would be, ‘What would have been the time?'” Bulova said.

For starters, Metro and its regional partners did not just decide to build the Silver Line in the past decade or so, when Metro’s woes began to show. Planning began at least as far back as Dulles Airport’s opening in 1962, she said, and it would take years to identify funding, secure a right-of-way and conduct environmental impact studies. There was no way of knowing that when the moment arrived for expansion, Metro would have found itself in such disrepair elsewhere.

“If only you could anticipate what would happen 40 or 50 years from now,” Bulova said.

Blaming Metro’s unions for all the system’s problems makes sense. Until you dig a little deeper.

Plus, the Silver Line has not been a drag on Metro’s resources, Bulova said. It has been funded by Congress, by Virginia, by Fairfax County and other regional partners, not to mention special tax districts in her county and federal loans that do not have to be paid back for at least 10 years, she said. And it has already sparked enormous redevelopment and commercial activity along its route.

If there’s any place for second-guessing, she said, it’s that Metro planners might have made better allowances for the system to expand to meet the region’s anticipated growth and to build more than two tracks on each line to allow routine maintenance without disrupting service. By contrast, when the county built the Fairfax County Parkway, county planners secured a right-of-way that would allow expansion from the outside in — including space in its inner median to add lanes or even to build rail.

“I think if you were going to turn back the clock and make some decisions, I think the early planners for the Metro system should have also planned for a way for there to be a way for equipment and infrastructure replacement,” she said. “It would been nice back in the 1960s when Metro was being planned that folks said, ‘We’re probably going to grow’ and leave more capacity and leave more space — and we’re probably going to need more than a two-track system. But those were mistakes made long ago.”