The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. needs a better way to get infrastructure done

Work underway at the Dulles Airport Metro station as Phase II construction continues along Metro's Silver Line in July 2019. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

International travelers who arrived this week at Dulles International Airport near D.C. — in many cases tourists who, until Monday, had been barred from the United States throughout the pandemic — found one big thing unchanged: They still can’t get a train into the city, a routine feature at major airports across the world.

That’s the bad news, which reflects an ongoing saga about the inordinate difficulty of building major infrastructure in this country. The good news in the case of Dulles, at least, is that after years of setbacks, the train is likely to arrive at the station soon.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority announced last week that the second phase of Metrorail’s Silver Line, which will serve the airport and points farther west, is basically finished. Finished, that is, more than five decades after planners decided it would be a good idea to build it, and more than three years after the projected completion date.

The project’s delays and disappointments are so numerous that the Silver Line’s Wikipedia entry is only modestly shorter than that of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II.

The announcement that the Silver Line’s six-station, $2.8 billion second phase is “substantially complete” means it will soon undergo months of intensive dry runs by Metro before, let’s hope, opening for actual passengers sometime next year. The line’s promise — not only to ease access to and from Dulles but also to juice economic development along a corridor that includes Tysons, one of the Mid-Atlantic’s most vibrant job hubs — will at last be realized.

That news coincided with the House of Representatives’ passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which is expected to jump-start a dizzying array of big-ticket projects, many of them for transportation and mass transit. The Washington region alone is expected to receive $18 billion of that amount.

If there is a lesson from the Silver Line’s travails — or, even more, Maryland’s Purple Line light-rail project, also plagued by decades of fits and starts — it is that getting important infrastructure done in the United States has become a herculean task. It is now the rule rather than the exception that projects that would benefit masses of people are now threatened, impeded or killed completely by small numbers of interested parties.

Sometimes those parties are local authorities who exercise outsize power over regional planning. An example in the Silver Line’s second phase was suburban Loudoun County, on whose territory a slice of the airport, and the project’s terminus, are located. In 2012, the infighting over the Silver Line on the county’s all-Republican Board of Supervisors jeopardized the entire project for months until it was finally approved on a 5-to-4 vote.

In the case of the Purple Line, which will serve thousands of mainly working-class commuters and revitalize run-down inner suburbs north of D.C., a relative handful of well-heeled property owners were able to use their resources and influence to postpone the project for more than a year by filing specious lawsuits. Predictably, those suits were thrown out of court, but only after the delays added tens of millions of dollars to the project’s cost.

Inevitably, the new infrastructure bill will trigger more such fights, and more such cost overruns and delays. America needs a better way to get infrastructure done.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Editorial Page Editor David Shipley, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Associate Editor Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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