Newsletter
Rep. Gerry Connolly talks about the Silver Line in Tysons at a House subcommittee hearing on Metro (via Oversight Committee/YouTube)

(Updated at 10:10 a.m.) Tysons got a shoutout yesterday (Wednesday) from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) at the Congressional hearing on Metro.

Connolly called the hearing before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Reform, which he chairs, in December to address the safety issues that have sidelined more than half of the transit system’s trains for nearly three months now after a derailment in Arlington.

The two-hour hearing primarily featured Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency leaders addressing questions about the prolonged effort to fix the 7000-series trains, ridership declines, and a looming budget shortfall with federal relief funds running out.

However, it also saw Connolly defend the investments made to bring Metro into Tysons and Reston. The first phase of the Silver Line opened in 2014, after Connolly assumed office in Congress, but the groundwork for the $2.9 billion project was laid while he served on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Asked whether the D.C. area has the density to support Metro, witness David Ditch, a policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, suggested local governments should privatize rail or shift resources to buses, which he argued are “more economical” since they “share road infrastructure.”

“When you’re in a hole, stop digging,” Ditch said. “Past spending on transit infrastructure is not a justification for ignoring high costs and limited benefits or adding even more high-cost infrastructure on top of what we already have.”

Connolly countered that federal and local officials “experimented with” a variety of options for the Silver Line, including the inclusion of a bus rapid transit system as part of the project. Fairfax County launched an express bus service in the Dulles corridor in 1999.

However, he said the buses saw a third or less of the ridership of the existing Metro trains, indicating that rail would be the better investment.

He pointed to Tysons as an illustration of how transit can spur economic development, drawing more residents and businesses that will sustain the system long term, at least if Fairfax County’s comprehensive plan pans out.

“When we built the Silver Line through Tysons, we had 17,000 people live in Tysons, a physical area bigger than downtown Boston,” Connolly said. “Because of the advent of rail, there’ll be 100,000 additional residents in Tysons. The density, in some cases, is dependent on the investment in rail, and I believe Tysons is a great example of a potential success story.”

Unmentioned during the hearing was that plans for bus rapid transit in Tysons are in the works, though the proposed system will be tied to Route 7, rather than the Silver Line.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is also scheduled to approve plans to enhance bus service in Reston and Herndon later this month, as Metro prepares to open the Silver Line’s second phase this spring after years of delays.

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Morning Notes

New Milestone Reached in Silver Line Phase 2 Project — Construction work on a new rail yard and maintenance facility at Dulles International Airport has been substantially completed, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority announced. The milestone will enable the project team to start testing the operational readiness of the Metrorail extension, bringing it closer to the long-anticipated handoff to Metro. [MWAA]

Afghan Refugees Build Community in Fairfax Hotel — “As the morning sunlight pours into her hotel room in Fairfax, Virginia, [Taban Ibraz] plans out her day: Attend an online English course, work on her asylum case and the stack of humanitarian parole applications for her family, look for an apartment, or simply stay in her room to read or write in her journal.” [DCist]

Vienna Kicks Off Holiday Season — “It took an extra year to reach the milestone, courtesy of the pandemic, but Vienna finally got to celebrate the 25th in-person Church Street Holiday Stroll Nov. 29. Santa arrived on the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department’s antique red fire engine, then lighted the town’s holiday tree with Vienna Mayor Linda Colbert and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” [Sun Gazette]

Merrifield Company Honored for Park Philanthropy — The Merrifield-based aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman received a distinguished public service award from the Fairfax County Park Foundation, which raises funds for the Fairfax County Park Authority. The company has donated more than $169,000 to support environmental education in the county’s parks since 2001. [FCPA]

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Morning Notes

Silver Line Phase 2 Ready for Metro — The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is handing the long-delayed project over to Metro after reaching substantial completion on construction. Metro says it needs another six months to complete testing and prepare for riders, suggesting the five new train stations could open in May 2022. [Reston Now]

Vienna Signs Off on Police Station Furniture — “Vienna Town Council members on Nov. 1 agreed to ride a Fairfax County Public Schools contract and buy $162,188 worth of workstations from Interiors by Guernsey to serve all 51 employees at the new police headquarters building.” [Sun Gazette/Inside NoVA]

Daylight Saving Time Ends Sunday — “Remember, we move our clocks back one hour early Sunday morning! You also need to remember that when you change your clock, our firefighters and paramedics want you to check your smoke alarms to ensure they are working.” [Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department]

Tysons Bowlero Holds Grand Opening — After getting a soft launch in October, the new Bowlero at Tysons Galleria will hold an official grand opening celebration starting at noon tomorrow (Saturday). The party will include free bowling, arcade play, food specials, and giveways. [Bowlero/Facebook]

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Silver Line Express proposal, via WMATA

Metro has some bad news for fans of a proposed “Silver Line Express” rail service.

A recent cost-benefit analysis by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) found the project had the lowest cost-effectiveness of the five options being considered to boost capacity and reliability on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines.

The hypothetical “Silver Line Express” would run through a new tunnel and tracks starting at the West Falls Church Metro station out to a second Rosslyn station in Arlington. The new tunnel could support express service, local service, or some mix of the two, a WMATA report said.

But a WMATA report and discussion at a Metro Board of Directors meeting on Thursday (Sept. 9) indicated the Silver Line Express may never leave the hypothetical stage. The cost-benefit analysis most heavily favored a new Blue Line route down from Union Station down to National Harbor.

The Silver Line Express carries an estimated cost of $20-25 billion, about the same as a new Blue Line route, but the report indicated that the express line would generate fewer new weekday trips — 139,000 compared to 180,000 for the new Blue Line — and receive less in annual fare — $119.4 million versus $154.2 million.

“When you look at the performance, the new Blue Line to national harbor offers highest impacts and highest benefits while lower cost alternatives have fewer benefits,” Mac Phillips, a principal planner and senior transportation economist-analyst for WMATA, told the Metro Board.

A cost-effectiveness ranking of the projects found the Silver Line Express to be the least cost-effective proposal, and only sitting at “medium-high” in terms of benefits.

Other options to expand capacity and ridership proposed by the study, which launched in 2019, include realigning the Blue Line at the second Rosslyn station to Greenbelt in Maryland and separating the Orange and Silver lines at Clarendon to create a second Silver Line connection at the proposed new Rosslyn station.

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4/15/20: Silver Line Phase 1 crews place concrete for new ADA ramp along eastbound Route 7 (courtesy Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project)

On paper, the Silver Line Phase 2 expansion should be “substantially completed” by November or December this year, but doubts expressed by the construction contractor about that timeline have filtered up to the Metro Board of Directors, where there are worries that construction delays could have a ripple effect.

At a meeting yesterday (Thursday), board members questioned staff about the status of construction following a disagreement between Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and Capital Rail Constructors (CRC).

“We have seen some reports that Capital Rail Constructors, the main Silver Line contractor, is telling MWAA that substantial completion date is something like May 2022,” said Metro Board member Matt Letourneau. “MWAA has stuck to November/December 2021 completion date. As of now, that’s still our understanding and what we’re operating on, correct?”

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority staff said they are still operating on the November or December timeframe for substantial completion laid out by MWAA. Andy Off, executive vice president for capital delivery, said substantial completion is still expected for later this year.

Even so, this wouldn’t be the first time the Silver Line has missed a deadline, and other Metro projects have also seen significant delays recently.

Off said testing with trains started on Aug. 21 and has been going well, potentially bringing the project closer to operational readiness testing, a process projected to take 60 days after substantial completion. However, that timeline is not set in stone and depends on how testing goes.

“We’re hesitant to get too far out in front of the timeline,” Off said.

After that, WMATA moves into a 90-day period for pre-revenue service activity — things like outfitting the kiosks, updating signage, and assigning staff.

The uncertain timing is a particularly sticky issue when it comes to hiring of new staff for the Silver Line expansion, who the Metro Board warned could be paid to sit around waiting for construction to finish.

“It seems like we don’t have an end date, so we’re training all these people early, but what happens when we’re not ready to go forward with operating the silver line?” board member Tom Bulger said. “What happens to those employees? Do they just sit around?”

WMATA Chief Operations Officer Joe Leader said the process of hiring and training staff takes time and, in the final stages of construction, needs to run in parallel with testing and other tasks in order for the Silver Line extension to be fully staffed when it opens.

“It’s an issue we’re dealing with with MWAA,” Leader said. “One of the things important to keep in mind: lead time for training employees takes time, just hiring them can take months to go through background check and medical. A Metro transit police officer can take up to ten months to train.”

Leader said WMATA will continue to monitor the substantial completion date to decide when to start moving forward with hiring and training.

“Based on what we’re hearing,” Leader said, “we need to continue to bring people onboard.

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Morning Notes

Silver Line Phase 2 Construction Could Finish This Fall — Construction on the long-delayed Silver Line Phase 2 could reach substantial completion in November, letting Metro take control of the project for a potential opening in the first half of 2022, officials said yesterday (Thursday). The project will add six stations to the rail line, whose first phase opened in the Tysons area in July 2014. [The Washington Post]

Vienna Town Council Gets Peek at Police HQ — “Donning hard hats, members of the Vienna Town Council got a first-hand look at the new police headquarters construction [Thursday] morning. Later they joined staff and contractors to sign one of the steel beams. As of now, the new facility is on schedule to open in summer 2022.” [Town of Vienna/Twitter]

Tysons Consultant and IT Firm Merge — Tysons-based consulting company Guidehouse has agreed to acquire the McLean-based Dovel Technologies Inc., which provides data analytics, artificial intelligence, and other technology services. Expected to close in the fourth quarter of this year, the sale will add 1,800 employees from Dovel to Guidehouse, which plans to expand with a new global headquarters on International Drive later this year. [Virginia Business]

Annandale Resident Dies in Helicopter Crash — “An Annandale man was one of the five sailors killed in a helicopter crash following a flight operation off the coast of San Diego on Aug. 31. Lt. Paul R. “Boo” Fridley, 28, of Annandale was part of the crew…conducting a routine flight operation from USS Abraham Lincoln when the aircraft crashed into the sea roughly 60 nautical miles off the coast of San Diego at 4:30 p.m.” [Patch]

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Metro service changes announced last week — including increased services, late night hours, and reduced fares — are being praised by many in the community.

On Thursday (June 10), the Metro Board approved a host of improvements with the intention of luring back riders after more than a year of reduced services and free-falling ridership.

The changes include more frequent service during both peak and non-peak times, extending operating hours until 1 a.m. on weekends, a flat $2 weekend rate, and free transfers between bus and rail.

The changes will take effect starting Labor Day weekend, the traditional end of the summer.

“These are all very positive changes,” Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn told Reston Now. “The only thing that made these service improvements possible is the money from our federal partners. Because Congress stepped up and delivered, we’re able to make these service improvements and, frankly, do what needs to be done to help build back ridership.”

Metro received nearly $723 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds, including $193 million from the American Rescue Plan enacted in March. These funds not only prevented severe cuts, but allowed Metro to increase services while cutting fares.

Local labor unions are also pleased with the changes, including ATU Local 689, which represents more than 10,000 regional transit workers and said it “strongly supports” the service increases.

“We know that public transit is a safe and effective way for riders to get where they need to go, but we have to do the work to rebuild rider confidence,” ATU Local 689 President Raymond Jackson wrote in an email to Reston Now. “The first step to this is making sure that passengers know there will always be a bus or train there for them when they need it. That requires full service. We’re proud that WMATA took this step.”

Alcorn says that, during the pandemic, cuts to service were a “significant hardship” for those who couldn’t work from home, like hospitality workers, who often need rail and bus service at different times than those in other industries.

“We realized that, in the middle of the pandemic, that there’s still a lot of folks that depend on transit to get to work and to do what they need to do to get around,” Alcorn said.

John Boardman is executive secretary and treasurer for Local 25, a union that represents about 7,000 people who work in hotels, casinos, and restaurants in the D.C. metro region. He says expanding services is inherently beneficial to their members.

“Our jobs are not 9 to 5 jobs. They start early in the morning and can go late into night,” Boardman said. “More transportation and longer hours helps our workforce. Reliable transportation is one of the issues that affects people’s ability to get back to work.”

Increased service and fare cuts will also greatly benefit those most vulnerable in the community, such as the clients the D.C. Reentry Action Network, a regional organization that assists people being released from prison.

“Any reduction in the cost of transportation would contribute greatly to reducing the already tremendous hurdles one faces when returning home,” founder Paula Thompson told The Washington Post.

Metro admits it could still take years for ridership to return to pre-pandemic levels. A graph presented at the transit agency’s June 10 board of directors meeting estimates that even by the end of 2024, ridership may still be off by as much as 25% from late 2019 levels.

But it’s hoped that these changes could at least spur gradual growth. Read More

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Metro will maintain its current rail and bus service levels under a proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board of directors’ finance committee approved yesterday (Thursday).

Since February, Metrorail has been operating at 80% of its service levels prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted a nearly 90% drop in ridership. Metrobus has been operating at 85% of its pre-pandemic service levels after seeing a less pronounced decrease in ridership.

The $4.7 billion operating and capital budget proposed for FY 2022 is being supported by $722.9 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding, including $193.4 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that Congress enacted in March.

Those funds have enabled WMATA to avoid making the significant service and personnel cuts that had been on the table even after the passage of the second coronavirus relief bill in December. Among the possible cuts was the closure of 19 Metro stations, including the McLean and Greensboro stations.

Tysons Partnership, the nonprofit group that has been overseeing the implementation of Fairfax County’s vision for Tysons, welcomed the news that those potential cuts have been averted.

“After a very uncertain time, we are pleased the federal government provided ample funding for WMATA to cover operating costs for the near future and that Tysons Metro stations will remain open,” Tysons Partnership President and CEO Sol Glasner said. “Now, we and the region need to focus efforts on returning to riding Metro as economic recovery efforts get underway and more retail and hospitality businesses return to normal operations.”

However, the proposed budget will delay funding for service on the long-anticipated second phase of the Silver Line, which expands the transit system from Reston into Loudoun County.

Previously scheduled to open this fall, Silver Line Phase 2 will now begin operations in January 2022 at the earliest as the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority works to resolve ongoing construction issues. MWAA said in March that it will be ready to hand over the project to Metro by Labor Day.

“We are preparing to welcome back customers as part of a return to normalcy, and welcome new customers who have long awaited the convenience of the Silver Line and new stations serving their communities and workplaces,” Metro General Manager and CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld said. “I am especially looking forward to beginning rail service to Dulles Airport as people resume travel to and from the nation’s capital as one of the great destinations in this country.”

Metro’s proposed FY 2022 budget also includes the transfer of five bus routes to Fairfax Connector, which will assume operations of the routes in July in conjunction with a host of other service changes concentrated around Tysons, McLean, and Falls Church.

WMATA says it received more than 22,400 responses during the public comment period on the FY 2022 budget, which lasted from Feb. 20 to March 16. That is the most comments the transit agency has gotten on a budget proposal in the past 10 years.

WMATA’s board of directors is scheduled to give final approval to the proposed FY 2022 budget on April 22. The fiscal year will begin on July 1 and last until June 30, 2022.

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Metro riders will now be able to make calls, listen to music, and scroll through social media while commuting without risking any service interruptions.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) announced yesterday (Wednesday) that it has finished establishing a systemwide wireless network, bringing WiFi to all 91 Metrorail stations and throughout 100 miles of tunnels.

The Silver Line in Tysons was one of the last three segments of the network to come online, along with the tunnels from Dupont Circle in D.C. to White Flint in Maryland and the Yellow Line between L’Enfant Plaza and the Pentagon.

According to a Metro press release, the project had been underway for more than a decade and involved partnerships with three major wireless carriers — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

“Bringing this project to the finish line gives riders added security and all the conveniences of wireless connectivity,” WMATA General Manager and CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld said. “Customers can text, talk, and explore the internet and apps, including Metro’s mobile payment options to load value and manage their SmarTrip account while traveling on Metro.”

Congress ushered in wireless service for Metro with the passage of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which included an amendment authorizing grants for WMATA maintenance projects and requiring the transit agency to ensure access to wireless provider services.

Funded by an agreement between Metro and the wireless carriers, the project required the installation of more than 400 miles of cabling and infrastructure. WMATA attributes the lengthy timeline to the fact that much of the work could only be done when trains were not operating, limiting workers to three or four-hour overnight maintenance windows and scheduled track outages.

The completion of Metro’s wireless system will improve the safety of Metro riders and workers, according to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who helped facilitate the project with the rest of the D.C. region’s Congressional delegation.

“The federal government and the region have made substantial investments in making this system safer and more reliable, from rebuilding tracks to introducing new rail cars,” Warner said. “Now passengers will be able to use their cellphones underground throughout the system.”

Wiedefeld says systemwide wireless coverage will pave the way for Metro to implement technology that provides real-time communications with customers and allows the rail system to operate more efficiently. It could also be critical for enabling first responders to communicate in an emergency.

The wireless carriers will be responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations and maintenance of their own networks, including testing and enhancements.

“This significant joint investment provides a communications network that allows each provider’s customers to stay connected with their friends, families and favorite content when using the Metro system,” AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon said in a joint statement. “The cooperative approach adopted by the Providers and WMATA was critical in bringing this project to fruition.”

Photo by Michelle Goldchain

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Friday Morning Notes

Metro Silver Line Phase 2 Delayed Again — “Metro executive vice president of capital delivery Laura Mason said Thursday based on the latest information from the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority – which is in charge of building Silver Line phase two – fall 2021 appears to be the best estimate for when service can start.” [ABC7-WJLA]

VHSL Issues New Face Mask Requirement for Student Athletes — “Starting tomorrow, winter athletes must wear a face mask at all times. This includes while they are engaged in physical activity. Because of safety concerns the only exceptions would be wrestling, gymnastics and swim & dive (when engaged in activity).” [McLean High School]

Fairfax County Suggests Pause on 495 NEXT — “Fairfax County supervisors approved two letters to the state transportation secretary Dec. 1 urging the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) not to finalize decisions on its 495 Express Lanes Northern Extension (495 NEXT) project until Maryland officials make highway-capacity arrangements on their side of the Potomac River.” [Sun Gazette/Inside NOVA]

Comcast Expands Network in Tysons and Other Parts of Virginia — “Comcast Business today announced it has completed construction in Virginia – expanding the company’s advanced fiber-optic network to more than 2,800 additional businesses.” [Comcast Business/PR Newswire]

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