You’ve Built It. Will They Come?

Silver Line nears completion near Tysons.
Silver Line nears completion near Tysons.

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Metro system is bracing for its toughest challenge since opening 37 years ago — persuading people to ride the Silver Line to Tysons. So argued Dana Hedgpeth and Scott Clement in the Washington Post yesterday. Drawing upon the results of a WaPo poll, they suggest that Northern Virginians rely on cars to get around. “One reason they don’t ride the rails more often is that they just prefer driving.”

As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I am no fan of the Silver Line project, which extends the Metro to Tysons and then to Dulles airport in two phases. The project cost has inflated way beyond early estimates, relies upon population growth forecasts that may never materialize, and transfers wealth from middle-class Dulles Toll Road commuters to wealthy landowners and other special interests.

And I would agree with Hedgpeth and Clement that it’s an open question as to whether the Silver Line will generate the anticipated ridership. But they’re skeptical for the wrong reason. They invoke a meaningless concept of a “car culture” in Northern Virginia to suggest that there might be rider resistance to taking the Metro.

The car culture dominates the commute in Northern Virginia, according to The Post’s poll. Only 7 percent of commuters there take Metro; 85 percent drive to work. In Maryland, 75 percent of commuters drive, and in the District, fewer than half do.

The reason that so many D.C. residents commute by Metro is that the entire city is well served by the Metro. Ridership also is high in the one part of Northern Virginia — Arlington County — that has encouraged walkable, higher-density, mixed use development around its Metro stations.  If the percentage of Metro commuters has dipped in Virginia compared to Maryland, it’s largely because more economic and population growth has occurred in Virginia and that growth is occurring where there aren’t any Metro stations — not because Northern Virginians with access to Metro are using it less, as might be inferred.

Fairfax County, for all its past sins in land use planning, is trying to get it right. Learning from Arlington after a mere four-decade delay, the county is planning appropriate densities and urban designs around its new Metro stations and reconfiguring densities and design around its old stations, which it had once surrounded with parking lots. I have no doubt that Northern Virginia will see a rise in the percentage of commuters riding the Metro. When that happens, it will not represent some miraculous conversion from a “car culture” to an urban culture. It will mean that new transit options exist that did not before.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) projects 740,000 monthly ridership in its first year in operation. That’s equivalent to roughly 25,000 riders daily — a pitifully small number compared to all the automobile trips taken in the Tysons-Reston-Dulles corridor. Hedgepeth and Clement acknowledge that ridership will take time to ramp up as transit-friendly development takes place around the Metro stops.

“The Silver Line is being built for the ages,” they quote Ronald F. Kirby, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, as saying. “A lot of the ridership is going to be for people who are not here yet and jobs that are not here yet.”

That is the issue. The salient questions regarding ridership and, by implication, the financial viability of the Silver Line, are (1) will population and GDP growth in a post-sequester world keep pace with forecasts formulated during the go-go mid-2000s, and (2) will real estate investment flow into Silver Line Metro stations, or will competition from other Northern Virginia real estate markets dampen that expected growth?

Where might such competition come from? Look first to Arlington, close to the Washington, D.C., urban core, which expects to see vibrant population growth. Then look to the metropolitan fringe where Dulles airport, supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia, is pushing for massive highway investment to encourage development of an air-cargo logistical complex west of the airport.

If competing markets are successful, re-development of the areas around the 10 Silver Line stations may take longer than anticipated. If re-development stalls, so will long-term ridership growth and fare revenues. Those are the trends the Post should be worried about.

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6 responses to “You’ve Built It. Will They Come?”

  1. Let’s be brutally honest. The Silver Line was hijacked years ago by influential Tysons landowners. The original goal was to connect IAD and Downtown D.C. by rail. The DTR and Dulles Access Road accommodated rail by reserving the median. However, the project was not cost justified.

    To increase the benefit/cost ratio, Fairfax County (back in the 1990s) proposed to bring the route through Tysons with three stations. Gerry Connolly, as Chairman of the BoS and an SAIC VP, was able to add a 4th station in front of SAIC. And the feds adopted a tougher funding standard

    Senator John Warner was able to obtain legislative grandfathering for the Silver Line. The hope was the addition of the 4th station would push the benefits-generated number across the funding line. But the project was still not c0st-effective. Campaign contributions were made; politicians, including then-Governor Kaine, worked their magic; the Bush Administration caved; the DTR was transferred to MWAA; and the bulk of the funding obligations were dumped on the backs of Dulles Toll Road users.

    In June 2010, Fairfax County adopted its revised plan for Tysons. Later, it quantified the cost for additional road and non-rail transit projects needed to support an urban Tysons at $3.038 billion in 2012 dollars. Now, the County is approving rezoning applications.

    So tell me again why people are surprised that Silver Line ridership is relatively low.

  2. larryg Avatar

    I believe that transportation project that radiate out from the core – will direct growth along those corridors – whether they are rail or road.

    Just look at how growth allocated itself in the region along I-95, I-495, I-66, the DTR and DGreenway….

    the original rail in NYC began life as a rail to other parts of the northeast for “vacations” but since that time major growth occurred where the close-in stations were sited.

    It’s not a situation where there will NEVER be any growth along METRO.

    It’s a question of time.

    When I-95 was built south of DC in 1963 – there were less than 40,000 people living in the Fredericksburg Area.

    It took 50 years but we now have well over 300,000 and I-95 is one crowded road whereas back in 1963 – it was a “freeway”!

    one more – the worry about the proposed western road in NoVa is what?

    it’s growth directed that way – right?

  3. Ridership on the Silver Line will grow over time, especially as Phase 2 begins operation. And development will occur near the stations. But the Silver Line is not about transportation. It was hijacked years ago and became all about whose land could be redeveloped at urban densities. It’s like a lottery, except that the lottery operators decided who got the winning tickets.

    If a corresponding obligation to pay a proportionate share of the capital costs went to the same landowners, it might be a fair trade. But the bulk of those costs were put on DTR drivers, who don’t get %^&@ for their increased tolls. That’s where the corruption lies. This deal was pure evil, IMO.

  4. larryg Avatar

    but the bottom line is : ” became all about whose land could be redeveloped at urban densities.”

    so the question about the Silver Line becoming a viable transportation link is answered.


    the second issue – who got what, when, etc.. is a very similar question that gets asked and answered about roads.


    but TMT – not picking on you – but you seem to believe that the Silver Line AND the western bypass are BOTH corrupt deals,


    are there transportation projects that you support ?

    or do you think that building more transportation – rail or road is harmful to NoVa?

    I’m trying to sort out your views here.. and I keep finding conflicting aspects.

  5. I believe taxpayers should fund transportation projects, both roads and transit, that can demonstrate they improve safety or reduce traffic congestion and when such benefits exceed their cost. If and when projects are funded in part or in total to spur economic development, such development should pay for the bulk of the project’s costs.

    The Silver Line could not pass the US DOT funding standards, but was approved for funding anyway. It doesn’t reduce traffic congestion, but triggers development that will create even more development. Further, the bulk of the costs have been dumped on DTR drivers. The Silver Line flunks my tests.

    The Outer Beltway segment does not produce any significant reduction in traffic congestion, as the bulk of traffic in that area goes east and west, not north and south. The road would permit the rezoning of some land for residential development and, supposedly, increased airfreight business at Dulles Airport. The bulk of the road’s costs would be paid by ordinary taxpayers. The project flunks my test.

    A road project that passes my tests is the Jones Branch extension in Tysons. This project would build a bridge over the Beltway, connecting Jones Branch Dr. and Scotts Run Crossing. Connecting the two roads would allow vehicles to travel northwest from the Capital One area and exit Tysons without traveling on the over-congested Route 123. A driver could get on the DTR heading west without the need to drive north on 123. It reduces traffic congestion. And many of the costs are being paid by the Tysons landowners who can develop more because of this road project. It passes my tests.

    1. larryg Avatar

      fair enough. good answers. thank you!

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