Riders leave the Wiehle-Reston stop, the current end of the Silver Line. The extension opens six new stations on the route.
The decades-long wait is over. Starting Tuesday afternoon, passengers will be able to take the Silver Line all the way to Dulles Airport and beyond to Ashburn in Loudoun County.
The $3 billion project has had a series of ups and downs since it was conceived in the 60s, put on the back burner until the late 90s, and then limped to the construction finish line, opening four years later than planned.
But the Silver Line is now opening at the tail end of the pandemic — an odd time for public transit. More people are working from home than ever. Ridership is down more than 50% but slowly rebounding. Riders still don't have full confidence in Metro after years of delayed maintenance that hurt service, as well as multiple safety scandals. How many people will flock to the new line and why remains a key question.
We've put together a list of frequently asked questions about the project.
What is the Silver Line and where does it go?
The Silver Line is Metro's sixth line, which opened in 2014. The Silver Line leg goes through Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in Northern Virginia.
The six new stations (closest to D.C. to further out) are Reston Town Center, Herndon, and Innovation Center in Fairfax County – then Dulles International Airport, Loudoun Gateway, and Ashburn in Loudoun County.
Trains will arrive every 15 minutes in each direction for now. By next spring, trains will come every 10 minutes during rush hour and every 12 minutes during non-peak hours.
How big a deal is connecting Dulles International Airport to rail?
It's important for the 20,000 workers that go there daily, the flyers of the region, but also a symbolic win.
"America's capital, which is also the capital of the Free World, should have public transit service rail service directly to its gateway," Sen. Tim Kaine said in October. "And Dulles (International Airport) is the gateway to the capital of Free World."
Airport Authority CEO Jack Potter says the train line is now attracting more low-cost international airlines to Dulles.
"They have an expectation that they're going to have transit to downtown," Potter said at a recent press conference. "Keep in mind, those folks want to travel as reasonably as possible."
"So (low-cost airlines) are excited about it and you're gonna see some new service coming our way in the coming months and years as a result of this train."
Read our story on everything you need to know about taking the train to Dulles.
How long is the ride to the end of the line?
From the new terminus at Ashburn to the original Silver Line endpoint at Wiehle-Reston it's a 22-minute ride.
The leg of the Silver Line from the Orange Line junction at East Falls Church to Ashburn takes 42 minutes.
From Dulles Airport to Metro Center in D.C. takes 53 minutes.
To go from one end of the line, Ashburn, to the other, Downtown Largo, takes an hour and 33 minutes.
Metro's new map adds new Silver Line stations and stations with new names
Who will ride the Silver Line?
Back when planners studied the idea of the Silver Line in 2002, they projected 23,829 trips a day out of the six new stations by 2025. Herndon is expected to be the busiest station, according to the study.
But a lot has happened since 2002, including the pandemic that has halved transit ridership. Metro doesn't have updated predictions. Airports Authority CEO Potter said he expects "several thousand" a day to take the train to the airport.
Metro CEO Randy Clarke said the pandemic changed travel patterns.
"I've been saying this a lot about Metro... it's okay if the ridership looks different," Clarke said. "Someone taking it from Loudoun to Wiehle is okay, just like someone from Wiehle to say Federal Triangle; or Friday night, someone out in this corridor that wants to go to a Nats game is equally as important as someone commuting in the morning."
"So our region is growing. It's robust. And I think all these different travel patterns are gonna emerge post-pandemic, and we are going to be a stronger region with this connectivity."
Metro Board Chair Paul Smedberg says he expects typical commuters heading into the District, airport flyers, and reverse commuters heading to tech companies and other workplaces along the line.
We talked to a handful of people at different stations to hear about how they plan to use the Silver Line, if they'd take it to the airport, and what concerns they have about it.
How can riders get to the stations?
Unlike most urban stations where the majority of riders arrive on foot, the calculus along the Silver Line is slightly different.
Some who live near the area have concerns about the wide, busy, and fast streets that surround the stations. Andrea McGimsey, a former Loudoun County board member and head of a climate non-profit, says the county should've been working on pedestrian improvements for a long time.
"More than a decade, they've been planning to have Metro there," she said. "So they could have been planning a way for people other than in a car to get there."
Instead, many of the roads near Ashburn where she lives lack good lighting, sidewalks, and crosswalks.
Many will drive and pay about $5 a day to park at garages in Ashburn, Loudoun Gateway, Innovation Center, and Herndon.
Both Loudoun County Transit and Fairfax Connector are launching new bus lines to connect to the stations.
Meanwhile, two bus routes are going away — Dulles' Silver Line Express bus from Wiehle-Reston to the airport and Metro's 5a bus that ran from L'Enfant Plaza to Rosslyn to Dulles Airport. Both of those services will not run starting Wednesday, to the chagrin of some. They say Metro needs an early and late-night option to get to the airport. Metro says it will re-evaluate ridership and decide on bus service later.
What took so long?
This project has been an idea since the 60s and really started developing in earnest in the last 20 years. It was supposed to open four years ago but had some construction delays and Metro was waiting to get all of its sidelined 7000-series trains back to start service
The Airports Authority, which was in charge of construction, noted several reasons for the years-long delays including changing the stormwater management to meet new environmental regulations, changes in the project scope and safety requirements, supply chain issues, and the COVID pandemic. MWAA said it ran into unforeseen problems tunneling in some areas with rock that was unexpectedly hard and had to be chiseled out instead of tunneled with a machine.
The project also ran into issues with cracks in the concrete, a years-long drama that involved a worker at the prefabricated concrete plant falsifying records (he was sentenced to a year in prison and a hefty fine). Officials haggled back and forth about how to fix the hairline cracks that were forming in its brand-new infrastructure. They settled on applying a sealant once every decade, but at one point Metro's Inspector General said the transit agency should not accept the work in its current form.
It also had several other issues over the years including problems with the rock ballast that supports the ties and tracks, track ties that had an improper fit, switches that were too tight, and faulty heat tape that keeps the electrified third rail from freezing.
Indeed, many projected opening dates for the line have come and gone. DCist found documents and news reports that plotted the second phase opening in 2016, mid-2017, July 2018, sometime in 2019, sometime in 2020, July 2020, January 2022, February or March 2022, April or May 2022, July 2022, pre-Thanksgiving 2022 and finally Nov. 15th.
MWAA's Potter looked to downplay the issue during a recent press conference.
"You never look back, you look forward," he said. "We're proud of what's been built here. It's safe, it's reliable, people will make use of it, and it's going to pay huge dividends for the economy of Northern Virginia, for Metro, and for the airport going forward."
Virginia's senators have been understanding but also frustrated by how long it's taken.
"This is the single most complicated project that I've ever been involved in my 29 years in public life," Sen. Tim Kaine said last month."It is so massive, the cost is high, we're dealing with multiple parties, the local governments, private landowners, the Airports Authority, and Metro."
Sen. Mark Warner said as the United States takes on several large new infrastructure projects, it cannot have a repeat of Silver Line construction issues.
"If we can't build things smartly, effectively, and safely in comparison to the rest of the world... that's not the country I grew up in," Warner said in October. "And that's not the country that's going to stay competitive with the rest of the world.
"We used to pride ourselves on being able to build things. Unfortunately, in the last number of years, we've shown how litigation and sometimes regulations and sometimes bureaucracy, drive up the costs and make building big projects darn close to impossible."
How much did the project cost and how is it being paid for?
The final cost came out to $3 billion, about 9% over budget.
About $800 million of contingency funds were used during the project and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority increased the budget by $250 million to pay contractors for increased costs due to the delays and cost overruns.
In 2010, the project was estimated to cost $3.83 billion, but officials decided to cut costs, including building the Dulles station above ground and farther from the terminal instead of underground and closer.
The bulk of the project will be paid for by Dulles Toll Road users. In January, the toll is likely to increase from $3.25 to $4 at the main line and from $1.50 to $2 at the ramps. The cost could go as high as $5.50 at the mainline and $3.25 at the ramps by 2033.
The state, Loudoun County, Fairfax County, and the airport are paying for the rest. The operation will be partly funded by local governments and fares.
Loudoun County instituted a 20 cent per $100 of value property tax increase near Metro to help pay for their portion.
What is the economic impact on the region?
Metro has driven development along the stations and changed the landscape in some places. You can see before and after images of the land around the stations here.
Loudoun County is growing more multi-family homes and condos in the Silver Line "urban policy area." Town centers have popped up at Ashburn. Redevelopment is happening in places like Herndon and Reston Town Center.
But a lot of empty land remains, waiting to be developed. So it could take five, ten, or 20 years for some of these stations to really grow into a true transit-oriented, walkable space.
Sen. Kaine says the line is an economic connector.
"Northern Virginia residents are going to have a really great option to go to work, go to school, go see friends, shop, get to the airport," he said last month. "This corridor is so dynamic, with so many different activities there that I think it's really going to be a good connector for Northern Virginia."
Should this have been a commuter rail system instead?
Some people would say so.
Virginia Railway Express' Manassas line is 36 miles from Union Station. The Silver Line is just about 33 miles of track to Union Station.
The subway brings more development and more frequent, cheaper, all-day service compared to commuter rail, but it is unusual to have a local stop subway extend out that far from a core.
Metro's GM Clarke has lamented that a few times, mainly when it comes to equity concerns around charging a distance-based fare or a flat fare.
"It's a challenging system because it was built to do two things at the same time — trying to be a commuter rail operation, and a city subway operation," he's said previously. "It's actually really cheap to go far here, proportionately, but it might not feel that way."
"Another area (far out stops like the Silver Line) that would be a commuter rail fare... be probably twice as much."
Clarke has also said 12-minute service may not seem great for non-peak periods, but if it was commuter rail, "you'd say, 'that's the best service I've ever heard of.' It's a long distance, but it's also the reality that the community has had a different level of expectations for a long time."
So is the Metro system finally complete? What's the next big transit project in the region?
Silver Line has been the point of focus for decades, and unfortunately became the punching bag and the butt of jokes about when it was going to open.
Now eyes will turn toward Maryland Transit Administration's Purple Line light rail in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. That line is supposed to open sometime in 2026.
Meanwhile, after Metro opens the Potomac Yard station in Alexandria next year, it has no new major construction projects in the pipeline.
Metro is still studying the idea of building a new tunnel under the Potomac River to relieve the bottleneck in the Rosslyn Tunnel. Proposals include creating new lines and building stations in Georgetown and National Harbor and more. Metro's board was supposed to select which proposal to go forward with this fall, but that issue has been put on hold as new Metro General Manager Randy Clarke settles in.
This story originally appeared on DCist.com.