This week, the first precast concrete guide rail support girders for the Metrorail Silver Line will be installed at Washington Dulles International Airport. While the airport is not the 11.4-mile, $2.7 billion extension’s final destination, it is a key reason why the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) undertook the project and its 11.7-mile, $2.6 billion first phase—along with their accompanying controversies: to provide light rail access to the National Capital region’s largest international airport.
Several more years of construction remain before the first Dulles-bound passengers can start hauling their roller bags and carry-ons onto Silver Line trains. The question is, will Metro be enough to help Dulles regain some of the momentum lost to its older, inner-city cousin, Reagan National Airport.
Opened in 1962 with an iconic main terminal and generous runways to support long-haul and international flights, Dulles has never really captured the imagination of the region’s flying public. Even as suburbanization has engulfed Dulles’ once-remote location, many travelers still consider accessing the airport something of a trek. Navigating Dulles’ expansive interiors demands time and comfortable shoes. And while a people-mover has partially replaced the space age-era fleet of mobile lounges that once shuttled passengers between terminals and planes, its deep underground location demands some lengthy escalator rides.
Oddly enough, National Airport, which opened just months before the U.S. entered World War II, seems better suited for the urbanized, “on-demand” environment of the 21st Century. What’s not to like with a compact layout, a “front door” light rail stop, and multiple off-site parking options. And though National’s traffic remains primarily domestic, the number of West Coast and non-stop flights—once limited to fuel growth at Dulles and appease nearby residents—has gradually increased, due in large part to the desire of western Congressional representatives to get in and out of town quickly.
As a result, National’s domestic traffic has risen steadily over the past decade, while Dulles’ domestic passenger count has tumbled. Dulles continues to lead overall traffic by a nose thanks to its near-monopoly on international flights south of the Potomac. (Both lag behind Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in overall traffic.)
That’s why Virginia state and local leaders gathered last week to discuss the some of the real and perceived problems that have plagued Washington Dulles International Airport recently, and what might be done about them. All agreed that Dulles plays a key role in region’s economy ($1.2 billion in annual tax revenue and a quarter-million airport-related jobs, according to MWAA), and should be promoted as much as possible. There’s also the looming debt from the Silver Line and other recent expansion projects that must be paid.
Yet with passengers continuing to flock to National, it’s only natural that the airlines want to be there to serve them. (Rumors of Southwest abandoning Dulles entirely are false, MWAA officials say). Reversing the uptick on long-haul flights from National seems unlikely as well, for if there’s one thing that unites every politician on the political spectrum, it’s convenience—something that seems pretty important for their constituents too.
Given the nature of the problems of dearth of quick fixes to solve them, it’s appropriate that the Washington Post characterized the meeting as “part pep rally, part strategy session” for an airport that’s having a tough go of things.
After all, people need hugs when they’re down. Maybe airports do too.