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For Dulles, Silver Line extension comes as airport begins makeover

Fueled by Thanksgiving travel, the airport’s new Metro station was the busiest of the six stations that made their debut a week ago

Passengers wait for the train on the opening day of the Silver Line extension at Dulles International Airport. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Throughout the years as Dulles International Airport grew, expanding its terminal, adding a runway and building a new control tower, a strip of grass in the Dulles Toll Road median that was set aside for a rail line sat mostly untouched.

As the airport celebrates its 60th anniversary this month and prepares for its most ambitious makeover in more than a decade, the last piece of that original vision fell into place in time for Thanksgiving travel.

The airport’s new Metro station is the busiest of the six that opened a week ago, according to the transit agency, fueled by a rush of travelers during the start of the bustling holiday season. After several tumultuous years of planning and construction, the project’s handover to Metro is allowing airport officials to focus on the next phase of Dulles’s future — one buoyed by the rail line and plans for a new concourse while shifting beyond the pandemic.

Officials at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversaw the Silver Line’s construction and manages Dulles and Reagan National airports, said in a statement they are “pleased at how quickly customers have embraced the new Silver Line and incorporated the train into their holiday airport travel plans.”

The Dulles station recorded about 7,700 passenger trips during its first six days of operation, accounting for about one-third of 23,300 trips at the new stations. Metro typically reports ridership based on where passengers enter the system, but it is monitoring entries and exits along the new stations to better understand travel habits.

By comparison, Metro’s National Airport station recorded 20,372 entries over the same time period. The number of trips that ended at the airport was just over 19,900, compared with about 8,400 at Dulles in those six days.

After 60 years, Dulles Airport is poised for a makeover

“We were happy to open the Silver Line for our customers before the Thanksgiving holiday travel period began, and early ridership numbers show that the Silver Line, and Dulles specifically, will be key ways for residents and visitors to travel in Northern Virginia and to and from our national capital region,” Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said Tuesday in a statement.

The rail line’s opening makes all three of the Washington region’s major airports accessible by rail.

Dulles’s Metro station is the latest shot of good news for an airport looking for a revival as international travel rebounds more slowly from the pandemic. Recovery has been swifter for National and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall airports, which rely more heavily on domestic travel.

Earlier this year, Dulles officials announced plans for a new 14-gate, 400,000-square-foot concourse. In July, the airport received $49.6 million from the infrastructure law to cover part of the project’s estimated $500 million to $800 million cost. Airport officials said earlier this month they intend to apply for an additional $180 million.

Dulles concourse gets a boost from Biden's infrastructure law

The proposed concourse would be built above an existing AeroTrain stop and eliminate the need for passengers to walk long distances or take a shuttle to their gates. The last major expansion at Dulles was a $3.4 billion package of projects completed in 2011 that expanded the main terminal and added the automated AeroTrain system, a fourth runway, a new control tower and other elements.

Airports authority officials also are eyeing the eventual replacement of the C/D concourse, built in 1985 as a temporary structure that serves United Airlines. As part of that process, the airport is soliciting feedback from the public as it updates Dulles’s master plan, a document that guides how the airport will grow for a future that could include the launch of air taxis, the return of supersonic travel and other innovations.

Dulles celebrated its 60th anniversary on Nov. 17 — two days after Silver Line service launched — marking the occasion with giveaways and promotions, including selling cups of coffee for 34 cents to match the price on the day the airport opened. The anniversary also coincided with the start of service from Dulles to Cape Town, South Africa.

But it was the inauguration of the Silver Line extension that drew the most attention.

With the $3 billion rail project four years behind schedule, Metro officials pledged on Halloween to open the line in time for the Thanksgiving travel period, giving air passengers another option to get to Dulles. Travelers using the rail link this week said the train beat paying for a pricey ride-share trip.

Dennis Wiggins took Metro on Monday from his home in Bethesda to an appointment in Tysons, then on to the airport for a flight to Detroit. He said despite delays and cost overruns that plagued the project, the rail extension was worth the investment.

“It’s fantastic,” the 69-year-old venture capitalist said. “Fifty years from now, no one is even going to remember all that.”

Fastest way to Dulles Airport from downtown D.C. -- driving or Metro?

Corina McCullough, 25, said she was happy service to Dulles launched in time for her trip home to Tampa for Thanksgiving. She said the ride from Dupont Circle took about an hour, but was worth the cost-savings compared with other modes of transportation.

“I moved here because of the public transportation,” McCullough said. “And when I heard it would be open in time for my flight today, I thought ‘Great!’”

Josh Fitt, 26, was eager to beat the holiday travel crush, making his trip to Dulles earlier in the week. He used to take Metro to the Wiehle-Reston East station, then catch the Silver Line Express bus to Dulles. He said he enjoyed the direct rail connection to the airport, adding, “after 60 years, it’s about time.”

Dulles for years has been derided, in large part, because of its distance from the District. The airport, about 25 miles west of Washington, is roughly a 40-minute drive from the nation’s capital when traffic cooperates, and more when it doesn’t.

“When it first opened, people mocked [Dulles] as a white elephant,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). “They said ‘Why are you spending all this money?’”

But, he said, planners knew the airport would jump-start growth in the region. Six decades later, he said, “We’ve grown into it.”

The trip for passengers taking Metro rivals the longest train rides in the world between a major airport and city center. The ride from Metro Center in downtown Washington to Dulles takes 53 minutes, slightly less than the roughly hour-long ride from Narita International Airport to downtown Tokyo, while longer than the 45 minutes it takes to travel between O’Hare International and downtown Chicago. Denver’s airport is about a 37-minute rail trip from its downtown.

Dulles boosters say the Metro brings a stronger link between the airport and the rest of the capital region.

“It’s another connection to downtown,” said Keith W. Meurlin, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a nonprofit group of business and community leaders that advocates for Dulles and National. “It will make it easier for people all around the region. And for foreign visitors, it’s a service they expect.”

As a Boy Scout growing up in the region, Meurlin, a former airport manager at Dulles, recalls planting trees at the newly minted airport. He said it’s fitting that the Silver Line is opening as Dulles again is contemplating its future. The Metro system didn’t exist when Dulles opened in 1962, but planners made accommodations for a future rail line — not knowing it would take nearly six decades to make that a reality.

“Think about the visionaries who set aside land to make this thing happen,” said John E. “Jack” Potter, president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. “Those folks over 60 years ago set that land aside, and were it not for them, this would have been a nightmare to try to accomplish.”

With about 12,000 acres of land — more than one-quarter the size of the District — Dulles, one of the nation’s five largest airports, is the only major East Coast airport with room to expand. In addition to outlining plans for a new concourse, airport officials recently approved plans to build the largest U.S.-based solar farm at an airport.

Dulles solar farm would be the nation’s largest at an airport

Buddy Rizer, executive director of economic development for Loudoun County, said the launch of Silver Line service, coupled with growth at Dulles, will be a game changer for the region. The Silver Line, he said, will set the stage for Dulles’s next phase.

The Silver Line extension also added two other Metro stations to Loudoun, allowing for denser suburban development that previously occurred closer to Washington. While Dulles has shown to be the most popular of the six new stations, the next busiest was Ashburn — the Silver Line’s new terminus — which reported nearly 6,500 entries during its first six days.

But at the extension’s core is Dulles, which Phyllis J. Randall, chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, said has propelled the county into one of the nation’s wealthiest and fastest-growing places through the decades.

“They built an airport in a field with cows, and 60 years later, look what it’s done,” she said. “We’re very proud and protective of the airport.”