After five years of construction and a long string of controversies, northern Virginia's $5-billion Silver Line rail project hit a major milestone with completion of the 11.6-mile first phase. Built by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and operated and maintained by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the $2.9-billion segment became operational on July 26, providing a long-sought light-rail extension from the existing Metrorail system to the burgeoning edge city of Tysons Corner, the planned community of Reston and the surrounding suburbs.

But the smooth-riding alternative to the corridor’s traffic congestion belies the Silver Line’s bumpy road to reality. State- and federal-level concerns about MWAA’s ability to manage construction of the region’s largest-ever transportation project nearly cost the project its $900 million in New Starts funding from the Federal Transit Administration, as did fears of cost overruns associated with the original plan to tunnel beneath Tysons Corner.

As a result, most of the new rail line and all five stations are located aboveground.

The Silver Line’s $2.7-billion second phase, which began construction last year to extend service another 11 miles to Washington Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County, Va., with six more stations, has experienced its share of difficulties, as well.

In 2011, the state of Virginia and local governments threatened to withhold their respective financial contributions to the project until MWAA relocated a planned underground station at the airport terminal to a site 600 ft away, eliminating the need for additional tunneling and reducing projected costs by more than $1 billion. The new station, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, will connect to Dulles’ main terminal via an existing underground pedestrian walkway.

Similar threats dashed MWAA’s plan to use a project labor agreement (PLA) as an incentive to bidding design-build teams. The authority relented, and the project ultimately was awarded to the design-build team of Capital Rail Constructors, a joint venture of Clark Construction Group and Kiewit Infrastructure South.

Although MWAA soon will finalize a $1.9-billion TIFIA loan for phase two, the agency’s use of revenue from the Dulles Toll Road, which parallels the Silver Line, to pay off loans and bonds has come under fire from commuters wary of repeated increases to build a project they may not use. MWAA has pledged to hold tolls at current levels through 2018, when construction of the extension is scheduled to be completed, and to limit future toll increases.

“Toll-road users are paying 50 percent of the project, so we’re making every effort to control costs,” says Ginger Evans, MWAA vice president for engineering.

For now, the Silver Line’s phase-two difficulties seem to be a thing of the past. Evans reports that design is 70 percent complete, with foundation work for the line’s support piers already underway. “This is a different kind of project from phase one, which was very urban in nature,” Evans says. “We’re dealing with a lot of facilities at an active airport, which requires coordination with the FAA as well as our other stakeholders."

For that reason, the track, stations and other facilities on airport property, including a 60-acre, 184-car rail yard, will be built first. “We’ll then work eastward, back to the end of phase one, and finish up with the remaining section west of Dulles,” Evans adds.