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54 years later, Loudoun County prepares for the return of rail

The Silver Line will usher in a long-desired westward expansion to Metro after years of planning, political wrangling and construction setbacks

A view of the exterior of the Ashburn Metro station. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

More than 120 years before the Silver Line will begin shuttling passengers Tuesday between the nation’s capital and Loudoun County, a railroad was carrying vacationers between the Washington area and the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, trading sweltering city summers for rolling pastoral hills.

The first iteration of the Washington and Old Dominion railroad began in Alexandria in the mid-1800s, running until 1968. The Metrorail system broke ground the next year, when regional leaders envisioned a future connection between D.C., its suburbs and the recently opened Dulles International Airport.

The distance between the hopes of local leaders at the time and the reality of restoring rail was a 54-year journey of lobbying, funding searches, construction delays and bureaucratic setbacks that will come to end about 2 p.m. Tuesday.

A rail connection will be reestablished between the nation’s capital and its wealthiest county as Metro’s Silver Line extension adds three stations in Loudoun — including one at Dulles on the week of its 60th anniversary — and three others in Fairfax County. The $3 billion, 11.5-mile rail segment will complete a 23-mile line that opened in 2014, ushering in a long-desired westward expansion of the transit system after years of delays.

Loudoun has changed dramatically since its bucolic early days, and its aspirations for what Metro would bring to Virginia’s fastest-growing county have shifted with it. County leaders are still looking to give residents a commuting alternative to stifling traffic, but they also hope the rail line will spur affordable housing and business development that will diversify new businesses beyond mammoth data centers.

The Silver Line to Dulles is opening Nov. 15. Here’s what to know.

“Metro really put us in an entirely different game,” said Buddy Rizer, executive director for economic development in Loudoun County. “We’ve been uber-successful. Our economy has been strong and we’ve been able to grow our tax base. But while we’ve done some amazing things, Metro represents our single biggest opportunity.”

At the same time, questions remain about whether the transit system’s benefits will make up for the increased fees Dulles Toll Road users will encounter and the bills that special tax districts will bear to pay for the project, coming after the pandemic cut Metro ridership in half.

Officials in Fairfax and Loudoun counties say they are confident the rail line will supercharge business growth, increase housing options and give residents a convenient travel alternative between D.C., Tysons and Dulles. Airport leaders say they expect thousands of passengers each day will take the five-minute underground walk between the Metro station and baggage claim.

Like the railroad of the early 1900s, Loudoun leaders hope Metro will also bring visitors seeking to escape Washington, but the draw is no longer a rural retreat for the weekend.

Instead, they hope people will come out to enjoy options such as a new performing arts venue the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development promotes as part of the coming Rivana development at Innovation Station, a retail and residential complex that will include more than 1.8 million square feet of office space, nearly 2,000 homes, a hotel and two public parks.

“It will really open up the tourism industry with Metro in Loudoun County in a major way,” Loudoun County Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) said of the Silver Line. “It will transform the community.”

Silver Line gives Metro, Dulles Airport optimism for new passengers

The long-discussed rail line began to take shape in the early 2000s. The federal government committed $900 million to the first phase of the project, which opened eight years ago between the East Falls Church and Wiehle-Reston East stations.

In early 2008, federal officials stunned local leaders by declining to fund the second phase, effectively scuttling it. James S. Simpson, then the chief of the Federal Transit Administration, told Virginia leaders the project had too many large “technical, financial and institutional risks” and “unprecedented” uncertainties.

After negotiations, officials relented in December 2008, although federal support would ultimately come in the form of $1.9 billion in loans that still need to be paid off through toll revenue. With limited federal investment, the extension was a big bet for Fairfax and Loudoun counties, as well as for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversaw the project and boosted highway tolls to pay for most construction costs.

Debates over the line’s merits broke out in Loudoun as a county board of supervisors vote neared on whether to fund the project, said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), the lone board member left from those days.

Opponents argued the rail line would bring crime to Loudoun and that Metro was poorly managed. The board developed special tax districts around rail stations to pay for the Silver Line, but some supervisors didn’t believe the districts would bring in enough money. They balked at the annual subsidy Loudoun would fork over for Metro’s operating expenses. Others said the stations wouldn’t benefit western portions of the county and that toll increases would hurt drivers.

In addition to economic and commuter benefits, proponents noted the county’s financial responsibility was less than 5 percent of the line’s cost.

“Other people are paying like 96 percent of the cost to bring us Metro,” Letourneau said.

In summer 2012, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted 5-4 in favor of funding the Silver Line.

Years later, residents say they still want transit access to D.C. and the benefits of new amenities, stores and restaurants that come with new developments springing up. But in a county with a median household income of more than $147,000, job creation and increased tax revenue from development are not as large a desire as they might be for other communities. Instead, residents and local leaders are eyeing affordable housing and businesses other than data centers, which have enriched the county’s coffers but bring few other community benefits.

The Silver Line could change that.

“We’ve got millions and millions of square feet of data centers, and now our public is sort of frustrated with that,” Letourneau said. “Where’s the rest of the economic growth? Metro is that opportunity. The Silver Line is that opportunity.”

Silver Line extension to open Nov. 15 in time for Thanksgiving travel

Echoing businesses in the District and closer-in suburbs, those in Loudoun say they are willing to pay a premium for Metro access. When Mark Madigan was looking for an office for his growing consulting business, he said, an Ashburn location near the future Metro station stood out.

“It was the most important factor in the decision to choose this building,” said Madigan, chief executive of IT Cadre. “It connects us into this massive ecosystem that is the D.C. metro area.”

The company signed a lease in 2018 and has about 100 employees at the new Loudoun Station development.

Madigan said proximity to Metro will allow his firm to recruit employees from across the area, including those who don’t want to drive to Loudoun to be in the office. He also envisions using the train to visit customers in the District and elsewhere in Northern Virginia.

Loudoun Station is being developed by Comstock, which invested heavily in properties along the Silver Line. Since 1999, the company has owned the land where the Loudoun Station development is rising.

Comstock originally envisioned a subdivision of single-family homes, but as Silver Line planning was underway, chief executive Chris Clemente said, it became clear a Metro station nearby would become a reality.

“That changed our course for that property,” Clemente said.

The 50-acre property is about one-third built out, with apartments, trendy restaurants and a movie theater alongside offices. It’s smaller than the company’s Reston Station development at the Wiehle-Reston East station, but it also marks a shift for Washington’s suburban fringe.

“The Silver Line is doing what it was supposed to do,” Clemente said. “It is creating economic development all up and down the Dulles Toll Road.”

To Dulles and beyond: Metro plans to open six new stations

Between the two Comstock developments stands a project built by Rocks Engineering. Michael Rocks, the company’s president, said his grandfather picked out the land 70 years ago from a helicopter. Now it’s home to Innovation Center South, a mixed-use project at the Innovation Center station in Fairfax County.

Rocks said he expects the opening of the Silver Line extension will help to attract a major office tenants interested in about 1 million square feet of space.

The pandemic has changed the office market while ushering in hybrid work schedules, but developers say they have adapted and expect demand for offices and commercial development — particularly at locations close to Metro — to remain strong. Clemente said that while one of his buildings might have had one or two large tenants in past, they now have leases with a half-dozen smaller tenants either looking to downsize or abandoning older office park developments.

Realtors say the Silver Line will attract families to Loudoun, appealing to workers who no longer must commute five days a week. Rich Blessing, president of the Dulles Area Association of Realtors, said he’s already seen that shift among younger prospective residents.

“They’re coming back out here and having some more space,” he said. “I think the Silver Line affords them the opportunity for recreation on weekends.”

Realtor Lynn Norusis recalled covering the county in a previous career as a local news reporter and how the arrival of a grocery story in 2006 was considered major news. For the Metro expansion to be coming a few years later underscores how quickly the area has evolved, she said.

“What the Metro is going to do for that area is really pull it out of people thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, Loudoun County is so far,’ ” she said. “It’s going to aesthetically pull it into what people see as Northern Virginia.”

Staff writer Lori Aratani contributed to this report.