Tag Archives: Rail to Dulles

Even the Washington Post Has Noticed that Metro Is Failing

redlinecrashby James A. Bacon

How bad is the Washington Metro rail system? So bad that only 84% of its trains ran on time, mainly due to poor maintenance. So bad that ridership declined 5% since 2010, even as transit ridership nationally was up. So bad that the system needs an extra $1.3 billion every year to invest in capital projects, and no one knows where the money will come from. The Metro rail system is so bad that even the Washington Post has perked up and taken notice.

The Metro rail system is arguably the most essential piece of transportation infrastructure in the Washington region, and it is engaged in a slow-motion train wreck. If the metro fails, the metropolitan transportation system seizes up and fails.

The Washington Post has detailed the Metro’s failings in a lengthy, front-page article, which shows that shows how deep-rooted the problems are. The original design flaw, write Robert McCartney and Paul Duggan, was the dysfunctional governance system that shares board appointments between Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland and the federal government. Responsibility is so divided that no one is held accountable, and nothing important gets done unless the District’s mayor and the governors in Annapolis an Richmond reach a consensus and push an issue forward.

Add to that the political bias toward expanding the Metro over properly maintaining it.

Board members … kept pushing for Metro to grow. The politicians who held the purse strings seemed happy to invest in laying new tracks and opening new stations, where they could tout development at opening ceremonies. But they cared less about spending for maintenance to prevent breakdowns years later, when they might no longer be in office.

In 2006 then-interim general manager Dan Tangherlini urged cost-reduction measures such as replacing short escalators with stairs, selling Metro’s headquarters building, and buying rail cars made from older designs. The board wasn’t interested. After nine months as a fill-in, Tangherlini did not get the top spot, the article says, “because Virginia representatives on the Metro board were worried that his interest in revitalizing existing subway lines would threaten the agency’s commitment to building the Silver Line.”

So, Virginia got its Silver Line to Tysons, but the quality of service is held captive to a dysfunctional organization. Astonishingly, the Silver Line, the newest in the system, is showing the second worst on-time performance of the six lines. According to data cited by the Post, Silver Line on-time performance in 2015 ran under 75%, dropping below 60% in October 2015.

Another original design flaw was a decision to build lines with two tracks, not four as in New York, with the result that crews sometimes must shut down lines to perform routine maintenance. Also consider the dysfunctional unionized workforce which adds to costs. The Post authors glide past union issues with relatively little comment in this article, but the Washington Times produced a devastating series of articles on the topic several years ago.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Metro is so critical to the functioning of the Washington region, including much of Northern Virginia, that it effectively holds the economy hostage. It is the transportation analogue to “Too Big to Fail.”

But no solution is in the offing. Raising the price of Metro tickets, which don’t come close to covering the cost of the service, is not a viable revenue-raising option when riders are already hacked off and inclined to abandon the system. Asking more money from state and local governments is sure to be contentious, especially in Virginia, if bailing out the commuter-rail system means short-changing other regions of funding for their own projects. Taxpayers are not likely to approve dumping more than $500 million a year extra into Metro, especially with no guarantee that the money won’t disappear into a black hole.

The Airport that Rent Seeking Built

washington_dulles

Passengers at Washington Dulles International. Photo credit: Washington Post.

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Post has taken notice of the fact that Washington Dulles International Airport, widely regarded as an economic engine of Northern Virginia, is in trouble. Sometime next year, notes Lori Aratani, more passengers will be traveling through Reagan National Airport in Arlington, than through Dulles, an airport with fourteen times the land mass.

Dulles suffers from the perception that it is a hassle to use. Indeed it is, compared to National, which is located in the metropolitan core. But, then, Dulles, located on the metropolitan fringe, has always been a hassle to use. When growing up in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, I once went on a joy ride (no alcoholic beverages consumed) to Dulles and I remember driving through miles and miles of empty countryside. Since then, the dairy farms along the Dulles Access Road have been transformed into one of the nation’s leading technology corridors. The center of gravity of development in Northern Virginia has migrated steadily closer to Dulles over the years, so it’s hard to imagine that getting to Dulles is more of a hassle today than it always has been.

No, something else is responsible for Dulles’ woes. Officials with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs both Dulles and National airports, blame Congress for tinkering with the decades-old rule that limit the number of takeoffs and landings at National. Restrictions at National effectively capped passenger traffic there, pushing traffic out to Dulles. Since 2000, Congress has weakened those restrictions. Between 2011 and 2013, Dulles lost nearly 200,000 seats to National. Sequestration also has clobbered the Washington economy, especially among government contractors along the Dulles Corridor who are most likely to choose to fly out of Dulles. United Airlines, which accounts for about 65% of the flights at Dulles, says it lost 10% of its traffic due to sequestration.

MWAA’s response, according to Aratani’s story, has been to staunch the flow of passengers to National. A new agreement with airlines would require airlines to compensate MWAA, she writes, if Congress opens the door to more long-distance flights out of National. In other words, MWAA’s strategy for Dulles is to restrict National’s competitive advantage in the marketplace and restrict the choices of Washington-area travelers.

Aratani neglects to mention the recent Bloomberg survey indicating that Dulles scores third highest among all major U.S. and Canadian airports for traveler frustration on metrics that include security, restrooms and shopping. Apparently, MWAA has acted on the latter concern by adding high-end shopping and dining options, including Montblanc and the District Chophouse, but there is no indication in Aratani’s story that the board even acknowledges the other problems.

Also, MWAA been a major driver behind the building of the Silver Line extension from Washington’s Metro system. The second phase , expected to be completed in 2018, will include an airport station. MWAA will pay for only a tiny sliver of the capital construction costs of the multibillion-dollar project, the financing of which represents a massive wealth transfer from commuters on the Dulles Toll Road and general taxpayers to the riders of the rail line. Rail passengers to Dulles will pay a fraction of the fare to travel the same distance as the toll road commuters who are actually paying for the rail.

MWAA and its allies in the air cargo business also have lobbied for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of road and highway improvements, including, most notoriously, the controversial Bi-County Parkway designed to facilitate air cargo traffic.

It strikes me that MWAA has focused its attention overwhelmingly on building Dulles through rent seeking — restricting flights from National, building the Rail-to-Dulles project at others’ expense, and dunning Virginia taxpayers to subsidize a highly speculative air cargo boom — rather than tending to the nuts and bolts of creating an airport that passengers want to use. Maybe the board needs to spend more time thinking about enhancing the visitor experience through such mundane things as tighter security, cleaner bathrooms and more dining options.

Update: I am reminded by Reed Fawell’s comment on this post of the catastrophic over-expansion of Dulles in the 2000s, leaving the airport saddled with enormous debt and high costs. In that high-stakes gamble, Dulles built “perhaps the world’s largest useless vestibule” as well as “a ridiculously expensive underground transport system,” both of which were compounded “by a long history of duplicate work, horrendous  cost overruns, and throttling of customer demand.” Reed has documented some of these disastrous decisions on this blog, but the full story has never been written.

A question that Ms. Aratani — or others — might ask is how those high embedded costs are reflected in ticket charges to passengers and terminal charges to airlines.

Storm Water Regs? What Storm Water Regs?

silver_line_construction

Silver Line construction

Officials at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) have revealed that they will have to redesign portions of Phase II of the Rail-to-Dulles project to accommodate new storm-water regulations. MWAA offered no estimate as to how much the changes would add to the estimated $5.6 billion total price tag for both phases of the project.

According to the Washington Post, MWAA has already dipped into a $551 million contingency fund for $700,000 to cover a change in storm-water treatment required by the state. That’s a trivial amount of money for a project this size. The question is, how pervasive are the problems and how much more could the remedies cost?

The distressing part of this is that it’s not as if the state popped these storm water regs on MWAA by surprise. There has been a literally decade-long build-up to the new requirements, which went into effect in July. Hopefully, the problem announced by MWAA reflects an anecdotal oversight, not a systemwide goof-up. But that anything of this nature happened at all does not exactly inspire confidence.

— JAB

No Silver Lining for the Silver Line?

metro_map

Blue dot indicates chokepoint where the Silver, Orange and Blue lines compete for restricted capacity on the Potomac River metrorail tunnel.

by James A. Bacon

By all accounts the Silver Line extension serving Tysons, Virginia’s largest commercial district, has enjoyed a successful start. Ridership is strong and in line with expectations. But a new issue arises. How much of the Silver Line’s traffic is cannibalized from the Orange and Blue lines?

The problem is that the three Metro lines must squeeze through the same Potomac River bridge to enter Washington, D.C. That bridge has a finite capacity of 26 trains per hour.  Trains assigned to the Silver Line are trains that cannot run on the orange and blue lines.

Is this a problem? Del. James M. LeMunyon, R-Oak Hill, worries that redistributing Metro riders between different lines will do little to alleviate regional traffic congestion. He broached the issue two days ago in a letter to Richard Saarles, CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

The primary problem created by the Silver Line is the fact that it operates by reducing peak period service on the Orange Line by 42 percent, from 19 to 11 trains per hour. Likewise, Blue Line peak service has been reduced from seven to five trains per hour. These ten former Orange and Blue Line trains now comprise the Silver Line during peak periods, for a net increase of zero Metrorail peak period trains on those lines. … The Silver Line does not represent increased train service, but only cannibalizes previous Metrorail service.

LeMunyon worries what will happen to the thousands of commuters who drive or take the bus from points west to Vienna, where they board the Orange Line. For many commuters, he maintains, switching to stations on the Silver Line will not be a viable option. It’s conceivable that Metro rail, after the expenditure of roughly $3 billion to build the Silver Line, actually could lose passengers. Former Orange Line commuters could switch to Interstate 66, making that freeway even more congested than it already is. “For these people,” he writes, “the Silver Line has no silver lining.”

In concluding the letter, LeMunyon said he hoped that WMATA would adjust the frequency of trains on each line to match customer demand, and if it made sense to move Silver Line trains back to the Orange Line that WMATA would do so.

Bacon’s bottom line: It is inconceivable to me that transportation planners did not take all of these factors into account when calculating the benefits of the Silver Line. If Orange or Blue Line trains are under-utilized at present, shifting some to a Silver Line running at full capacity actually could increase ridership. But, hey, you never know. It will be interesting to watch traffic counts at Silver, Orange and Blue line Metro stations and along Interstate 66 to see how commuters adapt.

I have to say, if it turns out that the expenditure of nearly $3 billion does not result in significant additional Metro ridership — one of the project’s big selling points — don’t be surprised to see lynch mobs forming.

Tim Kaine Versus the Mole People

mole peopleThe Silver Line extending the Washington Metro to Tysons is scheduled to open Saturday, and people are getting excited about the impending event. Mass transit supporters are hailing the momentous achievement, which provides the impetus to transform Virginia’s largest business district into a more balanced, livable and walkable community. Indeed, there is much to celebrate.

But others are lamenting the plundering of Dulles Toll Road commuters to pay for much of the project, especially the soon-to-start second phase to Washington Dulles International Airport and beyond. Critics have ample grounds for their bitterness. The Silver Line constitutes a massive wealth-redistribution scheme. Riders and property owners enjoying windfalls in property values will pay for only a fraction of the cost of building and operating the system.

Some day, someone will write a book about the Silver Line project and the extraordinary political maneuvering it took to make it happen. When he (or she) does, they’ll find a treasure trove of source material in the Library of Virginia. The state library is archiving 1.3 million emails generated by Governor Tim Kaine and members of his administration. The Kaine Email Project is making those emails searchable and accessible online.

Out of the Box, the Library of Virginia blog, is highlighting correspondence regarding selected topics, including the furor over whether to build the Silver Line under ground or above ground where it ran through Tysons. The controversy was covered heavily by the press but the Kaine Email Project gives a closer look at Kaine’s decision-making process. In a quick and superficial perusal, I didn’t find any great surprises here — Kaine was a pretty straightforward guy — but the emails do show whom he communicated with as he worked his way through the controversy.

This email dated Dec. 12, 2006, and addressed to Chief of Staff Bill Leighty, Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer, Communications Director Delacey Skinner and Counselor to the Governor Larry Roberts, provides some color.

Yesterday in our leadership meeting, we talked about the rumor that the [Federal Transit Administration] would send me a letter saying “the choice not to pursue the tunnel was yours alone and we had nothing to do with it.” Last night, Lin Holton gave me a letter circulating in Northern Virginia. The Tysons Tunnel group asked William Coleman — former Secretary of Transportation under Nixon and Ford — to write a letter that seems to suggest that the tunnel or no tunnel decision was not the FTA’s but the Governor’s. This may be the rumored letter — or it may give a hint of what a forthcoming FTA letter would say. I will give the letter to Delacey — she can provide copies to you.

At some point, we will be asked for some statement on the whole thing. Just to have a statement ready if and when we need it — for a press response or for a letter to the Mole People or someone else — I thought I would put into my own words a quick narrative of the process up to this point, trying to be diplomatic and not heedlessly hack anyone off (i.e., Congress people, Fairfax, FTA, etc.)

It’s fascinating to see Kaine grappling with rumors, responding to the circulation of letters by advocacy groups and referring to “Mole People.” Is that what he called the tunnel zealots? Pretty funny.

— JAB

Over Budget, Seven Months Late… and Counting

Phase 1 of the Rail-to-Dulles project was supposed to be the good phase. For quite a while, it appeared to be running on budget and on time, providing reason to be optimistic that the highly controversial Phase 2 of the project might do so as well. But it hasn’t worked out that way. The story has been chronicled in the Northern Virginia press but has gotten little attention downstate, even though Virginia taxpayers are helping to foot the bill for the mega-project.

The track and stations all have been built but a critical piece of the infrastructure — the installation of radios that don’t meet code — as well as leaky roofs at rail stations and various technical problems have delayed the opening seven months so far. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority officials say they do not know when the rail line will open. Now, in the latest wrinkle, project manager Pat Nowakowski has announced his resignation, purportedly for reasons unrelated to the delays, according to the Washington Post, making resolution of the issues even more difficult.

When a project of this magnitude runs this late, and property owners in the Tysons area have invested millions of dollars in expectation of a Metro-led surge in demand, this cannot end well. Meanwhile, we have this piece of news: The office vacancy rate in Fairfax County crept another half percentage point higher in 2013 to 14.9%, the highest since the Savings & Loan crisis of 1991. So reports Inside Nova.  And, as I blogged yesterday, population growth in Northern Virginia has slowed markedly.

— JAB

Lerner Aims to Complete Tysons Office Tower… Only Two Years Late

tysons_tower

Artist’s rendering of Lerner’s new Tysons Tower. Original completion date: early 2014. New completion date: Late 2015/early 2016.

by James A. Bacon

Well, well, well, what do you know? The commercial building boom in Tysons triggered by the imminent completion of Phase One of the Rail-to-Dulles project doesn’t seem to be running on schedule. A Washington Post article today highlights Lerner Enterprise’s lengthy delay in building an 18-story, 476,000-square-foot office building near one of Tysons’ four Metro stations. Writes Jonathan O’Connell:

Office leasing has been flat, at best, in most parts of the region since then. The vacancy rate at office buildings in Northern Virginia is more than 17 percent, and other buildings built without tenants lined up are still largely empty. And the Silver Line has been delayed.

The good news is that Lerner is finally ready to move; it expects to complete construction by late 2015 or early 2016. But the question is how rapidly the Tysons commercial market can absorb (a) existing vacancies, (b) Tysons Tower, a Macerich project nearing completion, and (c) the Lerner office space, in a regional economy driven by federal spending in an era when federal spending, especially the defense spending so predominant in Northern Virginia, is severely curtailed and as businesses continue to shrink their office footprint per employee. Rob Whitfield, a former commercial real estate broker and a Rail-to-Dulles gadfly, estimates that Northern Virginia could have an eight-year office supply at present.

The multibillion-dollar long-term plan for transforming Tysons from a poster child for autocentric sprawl into a walkable, transit-oriented community has more interlocking pieces than a Chinese puzzle. The plan depends heavily upon an increase in development around Tysons to stimulate Silver Line ridership, pay for the reconfiguration of the business district’s paisley street pattern into a walkable grid, and generate tax revenues to offset the billions of dollars of road and highway improvements needed to move traffic in and out of the district.

If the development is slow to materialize, then the money to pay for the supporting transportation and streetscape upgrades will be slow to materialize. The question is, what happens if the anticipated smart-growth amenities aren’t built? Will Silver Line revenue fall short? If it does, who will pay? Will businesses find the district less attractive and locate in more walkable places, like Arlington, instead?

At least Tysons partisans can console themselves about one thing. Reston, a prime competing market on the Silver Line, turns out to have massive financial obligations of its own. The Reston Citizen Association estimates that Reston’s infrastructure needs to be $1.5 billion in current dollars ($2.5 billion in future dollars). Meeting those obligations could drive up Reston leases and rents.

The Silver Line is being built — that die has been cast, and there is no going back — so it only makes sense to use the Metro as a stimulus for more rational land use in Tysons and along the Dulles corridor. Tysons stakeholders are doing what the logic of the situation impels them to do. I’m just worried that the cost of the transformation — Silver Line subsidies, transportation access in and out of Tysons, and other infrastructure — is so huge that it can’t be paid for and the whole thing will disintegrate in slo-mo. I hope my fears are overblown. Somebody please tell me why I’m wrong.