Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dulles De-Railed?

Will this....

...ever get here?

After Friday's Washington Post headline, that's a question many Washingtonians are asking themselves. The Federal Transit Administration's decision to not grant an expected $900 million to the Silver Line has caused quite a stir here in the seat of government.

Since the 1960s, before even the current Metro system was open to passengers, regional leaders have been calling for a rail connection to the area's largest airport. Of the three Airports in the Washington area, the premier gateway, Dulles, is the only one without train service to Downtown (and BWI also has service to Baltimore). The Silver Line would include 23 new miles of heavy rail, with trains operating from Ryan Road (Rt 772) in Loudoun County to Stadium-Armory station along the Orange and Blue Lines in Washington. Along the way, it would serve one of the region's largest job centers while connecting international visitors to downtown on a one-seat ride.

Many people I spoke with on Friday responded with surprise and outrage that a project being planned for four decades was suddenly in such a precarious position. According to the Post, it wasn't just everyday Metro riders that were upset either, Friday's lead article described Virginia Senator Warner as "livid."

So why all the hubbub? According to columnist Marc Fisher, the decision by the FTA to put federal funding at risk for Phase I of the Metro extension to Dulles Airport is not completely out of the blue. Still, the feds and Virginia have already allocated $104 million to the project, and utility relocation for the project has already started in Fairfax County.

It seems that there has been some contradiction regarding conversations between FTA and Virginia leaders. The Post is reporting that Virginia's cost estimates don't match the FTA's and that only a few days before the bell tolled for the Silver Line, FTA sent a report to Congress rating the Dulles Metro line as meeting criteria for funding. The Post articles indicate that Virginia's leaders feel like FTA has been leading them on with regards to the project's hopes. Many of the concerns raised last Thursday have already been addressed, including the slashing of costs late last year to meet FTA cost guidelines. If FTA is so concerned with the project, they should have sent up smoke signals earlier.

Due to this pressure, US Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters, has agreed to grant a "cooling off period" before making a final decision. It seems very unlikely, however, that the FTA is going to change their mind and that leaves Northern Virginia's citizens and leaders in a quandary.

As reported before (here and here) on Track Twenty-Nine, the Silver Line was about far more than getting people from home to work (an estimated 60,000 commuters daily), it was to be about redefining Northern Virginia in a way which would change the very foundation of the home to work trip. Of course, it would take more than a Metro line to transform Tysons into Bethesda, but it isn't too far-fetched to imagine a transformation on the scale of Silver Spring's in gridlocked Fairfax County.

Without the $900 million in federal dollars, the $2.5 billion project will probably not move forward, at least not without major changes. Already talk is surfacing of ways to make up the gap. Governor Kaine has already expressed his disinterest in further raising tolls on the Dulles Toll Road to pay for the project. Some have suggested a private takeover of the project, but public-private partnerships still face much criticism, at least outside of the White House.

Regardless of the fate of the Silver Line, however, this situation is indicative of a larger problem facing America's urban areas. Transportation dollars are stretched thinner and thinner each additional year that passes, and the costs associated with the aging infrastructure from the Interstate Highway era are piling up. In an age where cheap oil seems to be in retreat, it does not seem prudent to continue to spend $40 on roads for every $1 on transit, yet that is where our national transportation policy is aimed.

Furthermore, the implications of the Dulles Metro rejection should be looked at in a broader context. For some time now, many cities have shied away from even considering heavy rail because FTA is unlikely to fund it. A few cities that already have systems are considering extensions, but what doubt the Dulles decision will cast is yet to be seen. For more information on this, check out the Overhead Wire's articles here and here.

In his State of the Union speech Monday night, Mr. Bush encouraged Congress to pass a stimulus package in the face of this recession. The Dulles Metro project is the same kind of stimulus for Northern Virginia because it challenges some of the forces that put us into this economic situation. Alternative forms of transportation would allow Americans to cut back on fuel spending, and therefore put money back in wallets across the nation.

It's ironic how spendthrift this administration is when it comes to improving our urban areas, education programs, and the health care system, especially in the face of Mr. Bush's own pet project, Iraq. Everyday, America spends an estimated $720 million on the Iraq War--almost enough to cover FTA's bill for Dulles. According to, one day's worth of War dollars would buy 6,500 homes, or give health care to 423,529 children, or even convert 1.27 million homes to run on renewable energy--talk about a stimulus package!

It's time that Metro opened its doors at Dulles and it's time that America's transportation policies started to lean in a more sustainable direction. America can't afford to miss the train when it comes to the greening of our cities. It's time for the Bush Administration to get on board with Dulles Rail.

Agree? Let the people in charge know at

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