No Silver Lining for the Silver Line?


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.

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21 responses to “No Silver Lining for the Silver Line?

  1. It’s the expectation that METRO would be a silver bullet for regional congestion that is the problem.

    Anyone can pick any subset of the regions transportation network – roads or rail -and make that same case – but why would you unless you were using it as an excuse to put a negative focus on something that, on balance, deliver a net plus overall to the region.

    More will need to be done – no doubt – as plans are underway for the Purple line and undoubtedly for one or more future river crossings.

    The question ignored with the complaint would be – show me a more cost-effective way to relive the regional level of congestion you cite – with roads.

    show me the cost of new roads that would deliver what you say METRO will not.

    this is the problem with taking the half-empty viewpoint towards – really – anything.

    I don’t get it. It’s like no matter what we do – it’s bad – but my question is – compared to what alternative?

    I-66 is going to be fixed – HOT Lanes are on the way. Presto-change O – congestion reduced!

    but I’m on this now – for a while. I don’t mind the criticisms – as long as someone has a better idea – an alternative solution – but the idea that we just tear down what we dislike – and walk away from it – needs to be addressed.

    we want and need solutions. It’s fine to complain.. as long as we follow it with “we ought to be doing this instead”.

    If you take that tact with the Silver Line – what would you proffer as a better, more cost effective solution?

    • Larry, basically, your argument boils down to this: If you can’t come up with an alternative when you point out potential flaws in a particular project, just shut up and go away. The problem is, why would anyone develop an alternative unless they had first concluded there was a problem in the first place?

      • re: ” The problem is, why would anyone develop an alternative unless they had first concluded there was a problem in the first place?”

        then if you believe it’s NOT a problem and/or not a problem that should be attempted to be solved and/or you just think it’s not a problem for govt – then you need to lay out your thinking instead of just posting opposition and walking away.

        For instance, if you think METRO is a failed enterprise AND at the same time you do not believe that roads can succeed at solving that problem either then admit that both roads and rails “fail” and basically nothing can be done – just walk away and stop throwing good money after bad.

        the problem with your logic is that anyone, anywhere, can make a case against something – and we have no shortage of people doing that these days – like your friend who is opposed to handicap equipment on buses.

        Without an alternative what exactly are we to presume his views on with respect to how to more cost-effectively serve the needs of handicapped or if perhaps he’s really opposed to ADA overall in general.

        where is he coming from and what is he proposing is a better way forward ( as opposed to a better alternative, I’m allowing room for him to including walking away from the function all together as HIS alternative.

        but dropping these loads on the ground like turds.. and then running away is not useful and we so much of it now days that I’m finding it more and more not anything useful.

        we beat down our current institutions – then just walk away.. as if there are no solutions – the function itself – attempting to do that function – is a failure.

        • “You need to lay out your thinking instead of just posting opposition and walking away.”

          Sorry, Larry, this is a blog post, not a book, not a fully funded research project. I’ve spent plenty of time in other blog posts pointing to transportation solutions.

          • to your credit – you HAVE posted solution blogs, I agree.

            but there seems to be a plethora of “this is bad” and “that’s all I have to say” “blogs” these days and I’m hoping for better.

            you may note – that many, if not most of my comments – incorporate ideas about how to improve… advocacy for things that do improve, etc..

            My angst is when we get to the point where we condemn entire institutions and basic concepts.. like most of the scientists in the world or METRO as a urban mobility, etc.

            at that point – we might as well be buffalo heading over the cliff…

  2. Jim,

    You should research more on this subject before essentially condemning (though you tip toe around an outright condemning). The orange line hasn’t been affected other than returning to what the conditions were prior to the Silver Line being announced. The one that has been affected is blue line riders, specifically those who can’t switch to the yellow (who work at Pentagon or Crystal City or Rosslyn or Foggy Bottom).

    This is also an issue of perception. For many, they used to ride the blue line previously despite a yellow line train that would actually get them to their destination, even with a transfer, faster. Metro realized this, and started pushing the issue by expanding yellow, and cutting back on blue with Rush + (yes it really should be called Rush -)

    Now, thats all well and good, and people who work in DC for the most part on the blue line really have little to complain about because they still can have the same commute time if not better. But, they didnt realize at WMATA how many people would be upset about the blue line in Virginia component. To some extent this could start to be relieved with the parallel BRT system now running on Route 1 between Alexandria and Rosslyn… but the solution really won’t come until either a station realignment at Rosslyn (the easier to implement solution in terms of cost and time) or a new tunnel (good luck getting any funding for that via Feds/State).

    The problem is of course funding. You can’t make a separate tunnel unless you have fed/state funds, but the calculus towards core funding is skewed, which is why only expansions get funded because you have to show new rider numbers (ie access) not just improvements to existing access. Therefore, any new tunnel would have to almost completely rely on private funds from special tax districts or local funding… which for a 3 billion dollar tunnel is a non-starter.

    So this isn’t really planners faults (WMATA has been pushing for the new tunnel for a long time) its the fault of transit funding in general.

    Either way, the idea that people would suddenly start driving on I-66 because OL went back to the original number it had all of 3 years ago, is laughable. Firstly, I-66 is restricted to HOV inside the beltway so many can’t do this, secondly it still wouldn’t save you time. The difference in headways for OR (not BL) is all of 4 minutes different from the peak, for those beyond EFC (for those inside EFC there is 0 difference). 4 minutes doesnt shift a person from train to drive all the way considering the driving difference is easily in excess of 20 to 25 minutes from EFC in, even if you have HOV tags.

    • Thanks for the explanation, TE. I’m not sure if I’m reassured by the explanation or not. You’re saying that there is a problem, just not the one that LeMunyon sketched out. Part of that problem, you say, is a lack of money to make critical additional improvements. Well, that’s a *big* problem. If the solution to displacements caused by the Silver Line is another capital improvement that costs a billion dollars or more, and no one knows where that money is coming from, that’s an *irresolvable* problem.

      As for myself, I’m content to look at the traffic numbers and see what story they tell. We can speculate all day long and never agree. Let’s see what the numbers say. Perhaps we’re worrying about nothing. Perhaps it’s a disaster in the making. We’ll find out soon enough.

      • Anecdotally, traffic in Tysons has been pretty good specifically on Route 7 and 123 recently since Silver Line. Of course, its summer, and August particularly, so its not a good data point. We will see as shortly as September what it all means.

        In terms of ridership. The initial 20-25k they saw 1st week was largely attributable to switchers that live in Centreville/Chantilly/Reston/Herndon/Tysons who used to go to OR and now go to SV. The benefit (despite being same riders) is they no longer jam up roads on the way to a station further away. Thats a net win for I-66 and other roads like Hunter Mill and Nutley.

        The additional increase of 10k that we’ve seen since then is likely new riders learning about access, and reverse commuters from Arlington who work in Tysons who have switched over who previously had no option but to drive.

        I think for phase 1, if the number years end is up in the 45k range thats a win and in line with projections, so another 30% increase. I believe the full year 1 (next July) projection was 50k, so there wouldn’t be as much growth needed beyond that for the system to have done exactly what it proposed to do.

        Of course, walkability of Tysons is one of the major deterrents to ridership right now, something that FCDOT has been hammered on the past 2 weeks and that they realize they need today solutions to, so hopefully by next July there will be real walkability improvements to many of the offices etc (as well as new residents coming to several buildings in Tysons) to get the projections to the full fruition.

        We’ll see. I think removing 20k from crowded roads is worth it though, especially if it means we can absorb growth in NOVA into more planned areas like Tysons and Reston, not to mention the reduction in VMT that I noted above.

        In terms of Blue Line, thats been a problem long before SV on that tunnel, and area leaders have been avoiding it because the solution is costly and not as sexy. It is as important as the SV, and we should be past the planning for it stage, and working towards the how do we get funds for it stage. DC and VA and Fairfax and Arlington have all been running surpluses the past 5 years. Instead of funding soccer stadiums, aquatic centers, and needless other waste projects I wish leaders would start addressing this much more needed project.

  3. of course Jim sings the praises of New Urbanism but then claims that METRO is a failure.. which seems totally juxtaposed to his advocacy in the first place.

    Well-functioning urban places seem to have certain things in common – and light rail/subway is one of them. Treating it as a failure if it is not “cost-effective” is sorta like saying public safety, libraries, schools, Hospitals water/sewer or not “cost effective”. In urban areas – these are not “costly extras”, they are necessities and the question is not whether you have them or not.

    I personally have always thought the more dense an area – the more expensive it is – even with economies of scale – storm water – for instance is more problematical when you’re draining heavily used impervious surfaces… but on the other hand, cities are genuine wealth-creation centers that, in fact, end up subsidizing rural areas so the extra costs can be construed as investments – indirect and not easily analyzed.. or provable with simplistic metrics.

    I think the problem with METRO is that we think it’s different than schools or public safety is how it should be paid for …. it’s essential mobility for urban dwellers and I would assert that rather than it full-filling a road metric of being able travel through the region with less congestion – that METRO creates a different settlement pattern ecosystem – that encourages people to live NEAR Metro rather than live on the west side of Washington METRO and commute to the EAST side on a beltway.

    I bet that Stewart Schwartz will tell Jim the same thing!

    • No, Larry, I’m not “proclaiming Metro a failure.” I’m raising questions.

      Look, there are good roads and bad roads. There is good transit and bad transit. I believe in mass transit. But supporting mass transit in the abstract doesn’t mean I have to support every single mass transit project ever built.

      Every transportation project — road, street, bridge, rail — needs to be economically justified. Sounds to me that you’d prefer to sweep a lot of problems under the rug. Move along now, nothing to see here!

      • I think what struck me was asking if he Silver Line could solve regional scale congestion.

        Can ANYTHING do that? why set that to be the bar for success to start with?

        Metro is expensive as hell… no question – and even I will wonder how you pay for new river crossings and more…

        but do you have a road plan in mind to do what Metro can’t ?

        the biggest problem with METRO – is a failure to find a dedicated source of funding beyond farebox.

        I doubt seriously if any METRO type system in Europe runs on farebox either but then they don’t see it as something that has to run on farebox – they see it like they do schools or other needed public services that you pay for with taxes.

        • To put things in context, the new I-66 rfp they have out, would do less to add capacity to the corridor than making the needed electrical and station upgrades to make 8-car trains possible system wide… and it costs nearly 3 times as much.

          Now… the thing about the I-66 project is they are soliciting for private partnerships, so theoretically the cost burden would be on a private company, but in reality the contracts that have been arranged thus far put all the liability and risk on the public. In other words, IF that HOT improvement doesn’t make the money anticipated, the jurisdiction is on the hook for the difference or in the worst case scenario if the private public partnership absolves, at risk to pay for the full amount of the capital costs. So, theres some major problems with that, for less benefit than like I say 8-car upgrades (300-400 million), a station realignment at Rosslyn (400-500 million), or the more expensive tunnel solution (approximately 2 to 3 billion).

          If Northern Virginia truly wants a robust transit network, they really should be considering doing all three of those things, with cost splitting with Maryland and DC. If VA were to approach those jurisdictions willing to pony up 1/3rd of the cost, I think we’d have a solution.

          • I get a little conflicted sometimes on who pays and why especially since the folks on the DTR got tagged for Metro.

            but if NoVa pays taxes to the State that, in turn go to help rural Virginia especially in terms of education – and investments in Transportation and Metro lead to increased economic performance that in turn generates even more money for rural Va – I can go along with that.

            and I would further make the case – that the 1/2% sales tax revenues for transportation – be fair game for transit and Metro ( and perhaps VRE).

            and that’s no small chunk of money – it’s actually more on a state-wide basis than what the gas tax brings in.

            finally – we have this thing where we judge METRO with respect to it’s ability to help regional congestion (or not) but we don’t judge highway improvements in the same way.

            If we changed the new prioritization system, for instance, to say that for congestion relief – a road proposal had to show not only congestion relief for the location of the road but congestion relief – for the region – how many road proposals would meet that requirement?

            Now the idea of using road tolls to pay for transit – I’m still chewing on that.

  4. This discussion is moot. The Silver Line, despite its scandal-filled past, is here. We need to get the best possible performance from it, rather than replay “what ifs.”

    Everything Jim wrote is true and known years ago before final funding decisions were made. But a sycophant media refused to repot anything truly negative about the Silver Line. Elected officials from both Parties worshiped the project even as some citizens regularly cried the “emperor has no clothes.”

    But it makes no difference now, unless Herring or Holder is going to convene a grand jury. The Silver Line is here. Let’s make it work the best it can.

    • I disagree with the entire premise, despite agreeing with your general statement.

      The idea that the silver line was a waste of money, or wasn’t needed, is complete bogus. It is making real differences in Tysons, Reston, and Herndon both in terms of those areas being attractive to new office tenants, and to solving the growing commute problems of the Dulles Corridor.

      Are there issues that come from any big change? Yes. But that doesn’t mean those like Pat Herrity who condemned the project were correct. The Silver Line is more good than bad, and enough good to justify its cost for phase 1 (phase 2 is another matter than I am less enthusiastic on). The discussion shouldn’t be to stop future improvements like this, but how to continue to create integrated transit systems that not only expand, but improve existing cores. The failure is that it needs more, including modifications to the existing core.

    • TMT – it’s funny you blame the media .. where did you get all the “scandal’ news from?

      the trouble with your logic is – no big project is without issues roads or metro.

      big projects have lots of moving parts and people do make judgement mistakes.

      at the end of the day – at least one question gets to the root of the issue on a per person basis. Was that person opposed or in favor of the concept?

      I know of very few, if any, elected officials – Fed, State and Local who opposed the concept.

      I remember the WW bridge replacement – and the opposition to it – including those who wanted rail and/or opposed the cost, etc… big projects seem to bring out opposition.

      Opposition to new Dominion Power lines… opposition to HOT lanes.. opposition to cutting trees off the beltway to get more lanes, opposition to the ICC, even the Purple Line has opponents.

      It’s not that there are not problems. I fully acknowledge them- big projects are messy, cause big disruptions, and almost always ended up costing more and not satisfying people who want more or people who want less or nothing.

      If the Silver line is so bad – why are they going forward with Phase II?

      • Larry, eh, that logic is akin to if the HOT lanes are so bad then why are they going forward with I-95 HOT. Well 1, they started before the 1st was opened and tracking its usefulness.

        In the case of Dulles rail, I think its always been a bit odd, it mostly helps loudouners get to Reston/Tysons, but they are paying the least for it. I thought if Only the Tysons to Reston stretch was proposed as the full project it would have been stronger for it, perhaps that additional 2.5billion could have been used for a new tunnel.

        I think Dulles rail is more of a debatable subject, but rail to Reston and Tysons was a no brainer, those who oppose continue to disregard the benefit of the jobs it is bringing and retaining, as well as the benefit it has to connecting the three biggest commercial hubs in northern virginia (Reston/Herndon -> Tysons -> Arlington). If any area of the commonwealth needs transit, its that one, so anyone against those three zones connecting is basically against all transit.

        • well the HOT lanes may have been not a good example but basically the point was that the METRO expansion has been a long drawn out project with a lot of people involved in it – and I never saw any major elected officials or even citizen groups come out opposed to the CONCEPT of it.

          the complaints are more along the lines of the details of it or how it was done or things done but not done well, etc.

  5. This is a known fact. Orange and Blue line riders were not told this, or they weren’t paying attention. Engineers knew this and kept it quite.

    For what the Silver Line cost, Fairfax County COULD have had a world class BRT. The Silver Line was something politicians built careers on, promising for 40 years it would be built. That kind of momentum could not be stopped to prevent the reverse engineering that took place in the “fake public study” and resulting choice to build rail rather than BRT. There weas never any REAL consideration given to newer better alternatives.

    Google BRT to learn more.

    We are stuck with it now so enjoy it, the Silver Line is nice. Maybe BRT can still have its chance to pick up the lost bandwidth. It only costs money.

    • first – if we want to judge METRO – truly and fairly – we need to compare it against other subway systems in the US and not focus on what we think are it’s shortcomings.

      If we took that same approach with – say the 495 beltway and connecting surface streets , I’m quite sure we could come up with a hefty list of problems.

      second – METRO was never intended to be all things to all people. We need the beltway and we probably need BRT but I think you’re going to find that BRT – which sounds simple in concept is not so simple – nor cheap in implementation but there are places where it may be the better solution but not cheap and ironically, it too, will have opponents – who have no alternatives -just opposition.

      third – no one aspect of a regional transportation system is going to meet all expectations – nor should it. It’s a complex system of which despite prior analysis never really completely predicts (as TE points out – actual outcomes).

      this is why, the engineers – at some point – get frustrated with the public because they have plenty of complaints but no real solutions and the engineers feel a responsibility to move forward with imperfect but necessary solutions whereas the public feels no such responsibility – they are willing to walk away when there is no agreement on what to move forward on.

      Finally -while we have lots of groups and citizens who have complaints, we have very few that support true alternatives – and in turn convince elected officials to get behind the alternatives. As a result the elected go with what it reasonable and possible… virtually all of them

      if we actually reacted to the opponents – we’d get literally gridlock because the “ideas” never really coalesce in to a widely public supported alternative.

      that’s my primary complaint here. The public is not going to take us to a better path. They basically will find fault, not agree on an alternate path – and at the end of the day – stop any/all progress forward.

      And the engineers – they see this – and they end up doing what they must to move projects forward – and the elected – know it also.

      It’s a basic tenet of a vibrant Democracy that we speak out and that we make our concerns know – but at some point – if we can’t find agreement – we end up like Congress is right now – basically gridlocked and unable – and unwilling to WANT to find a compromise that moves us forward.

  6. Thought it should be revisited, more data coming in and surprise surprise, nay sayers continue to be wrong about Silver Line

    “Silver linings: Ridership is down 6% on Fairfax Connector compared to last August. But Fairfax Metrorail boardings are up 28% and park-and-ride usage is up 15%, suggesting a shift toward the Silver line rather than a decline in public transit use. (Post) ”

    Fairfax County metrorail ridership is up 28% from prior to the silver line. Thats a lot of new trips considering stations in south fairfax BL and central via OR weren’t slouches to begin with.

    So the output is not breakeven robbing from other places, there is a sizable new population of users (and growing). That being said, the BL continues to be shafted by this, and the OR when there is a single tracking problem also feels the pain (though I think when operating at true 24tph no real issue on OR). Solutions could be to bolster the new blue line parallel BRT between potomac yard and arlington via free transfers from rail, or the rosslyn station improvement, or otherwise improving efficiency to allow more than 24tph across rosslyn.

    That being said, none of that has anything to do with the worthiness of the Silver Line Ph1 which is already exceeding expectations (and will continue to improve)

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