Ideally, MWAA would launch construction on Phase 2 around the same time trains begin running between East Falls Church and Reston, a milestone currently scheduled for 2013. That’d have the entire extension operational by the end of 2016. Keeping schedules is not the only priority for MWAA, which was handed the keys to the project in 2006.
The agency would also like to avoid the controversies that threatened to derail the entire project in late 2008, when state and local officials scrambled to counter the Federal Transit Administration’s skepticism about the $2.5 billion project’s financial viability, and MWAA’s ability to manage it.
Though hardly with a ringing endorsement, FTA ultimately awarded the project a $900 million New Starts grant that allowed work on the extension’s first phase to move forward early last year.
Aside from a brief controversy surrounding the use of 35-year-old foundations for a section of the extension’s guideway piers, the project has progressed relatively quietly and on schedule, according to Dulles Transit Partners, MWAA’s design-build partner that is co-owned by Bechtel Infrastructure, Inc. and URS.
Because Phase 2 has no federal funding—and given the project’s “history” with the FTA, requesting another grant is probably not a good idea—it’s up to MWAA to figure out how to reign the costs back in, or at the very least keep them from ballooning any further.
But though the project is the same, the landscape is different, literally and figuratively.
Much of Phase 1’s cost controversy stemmed from the Silver Line’s path through the densely developed Tysons Corner area. MWAA eventually scrapped a long tunnel through the area in favor of a less costly above-ground route.
The route for Phase 2, on the other hand, lies mostly in the median of the Dulles Access and Toll Roads, and across airport property—both owned by MWAA and largely free of the terrain and density issues that defined Phase 1.
MWAA also controls prices on the Dulles Toll Road, which are currently projected to fund 52.6 percent of the entire project. (Traffic counts did decline when the first increase was implemented this year, but it’s unclear how much can be attributed directly to the toll.)
With preliminary engineering work on Phase 2 underway, the agency is studying station and route designs with an eye toward trimming costs. And it's looking for some help from above, literally and figuratively.
The biggest change come at the airport, where the originally planned underground station immediately adjacent to Dulles’ main terminal may moved above ground and positioned 600 feet further out, eliminating the need for a two-mile tunnel through airport property. The relocated station would connect to an existing pedestrian underpass with moving sidewalks that links the terminal with two large parking garages.
Though potentially a major cost-saver, the relocated station has been criticized by some who claim that the loss of convenient terminal access might cost the Silver Line some airport-bound riders.
(Being a frequent user of the Dulles garages, the underpass travel time doesn’t seem that much of a hardship. It also seem logical to assume that most time-stressed airline passengers would opt for other, more direct ways to reach Dulles anyway.)
A more remote Metro station would also provide a more expansive buffer between Metro and the Dulles terminal, a feature that may help homeland security officials sleep a bit better at night.
MWAA seems to be looking skyward in its search for revenue solutions as well.
The agency is currently exploring the feasibility of leasing the air rights at the new stations, creating the possibility of mixed-use developments located on platforms constructed above the existing roadway. Though a technically complicated and certainly expensive proposition for any potential developers, the new twist on transit-oriented development may well prove tempting in a revived real estate market.
Given all the uncertainties facing any major light rail initiative these days, MWAA is wise to look at any and all means for getting Phase 2 of the Silver Line off on as sound financial footing as possible.
The agency has so far proven that it can get major infrastructure system—one outside its “core business” of running airports and toll roads—off the ground. Now, we’ll see if it can keep it going.