Silver Line: Metro to take control of extension, starting testing phase

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Metro announced Thursday it is taking control of the Silver Line extension, moving the long-delayed project a step closer to passenger service after years of delays. Transit officials said riders could begin boarding trains this fall if testing and safety accreditations are completed.

The handover between the transit agency and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is overseeing construction of the 11.4-mile rail extension to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County, is one of the final hurdles to the project’s completion. The extension initially was slated to open in 2018 but has been delayed because of construction issues, frustrating government and business leaders who see the rail line as the spine for economic growth.

Several developments that include space for technology companies, medical offices, retail stores and new homes have sprung up along the extension. Thursday’s designation of operational readiness is the clearest signal yet that Metro and MWAA are satisfied with the project’s standing after working through a lengthy punch list in recent months.

“We’re excited to get to this point, finally,” said board member Matthew F. Letourneau (R), a Loudoun County supervisor.

Metro’s Silver Line extension moves closer to finish line

Metro officials did not provide an opening date during a regular board meeting, but interim General Manager Andy Off said the transit agency is hoping to welcome passengers this fall.

“We are committed, certainly, to this year, without a doubt,” he said in an interview. “We just need some more time to work through the details.”

The development comes as Metro is slowly emerging from a rail car shortage as it tackles a training and accreditation lapse involving half of its train operators, sanctions for violating safety guidelines on restoring track power and changes in leadership. The slow return of rail riders lost during the pandemic — as thousands more stay home during a rise in telework — have transit officials bracing for a budget hole of up to $500 million starting next summer.

While expenses associated with operating the Silver Line will add to Metro’s burden, agency leaders say the extension is key to generating new customers who have moved into nearby homes and who want to forego stifling traffic.

“It’s obviously very exciting for the commonwealth, but it’s also really important for the system because this is truly an area now with the extension of the Silver Line where we potentially can see a lot of ridership growth,” said Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg. “A lot of people are moving near Metro stations. I mean, it’s just a fact.”

Operational readiness allows Metro to simulate service, run emergency drills with first responders, work out security issues, fully train workers and ensure that construction issues are resolved before Metro takes full possession. Off said more than three months of testing and other preparations will be needed before the extension would open to passengers.

Lawmakers send letter requesting update on latest Silver Line delay

The $5.8 billion Silver Line project will add six stations to the 91-station rail system, extending beyond the existing Wiehle-Reston East station and to Ashburn. Metro is training or hiring between 450 and 500 employees to run the extension.

Workers on Thursday were changing locks at stations and buildings along the line to add the extension to Metro’s security system, Off said. The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, an agency that regulates Metrorail safety, has certified the track and facilities, but will still need to certify that the system is operational and ready for service.

The transit agency and MWAA are continuing to work through final negotiations, Off said, such as a problem with heat tape, which prevents ice and snow buildup on tracks, and money that MWAA will give Metro to pay for remaining maintenance issues. “But we’re confident that we have a clear way ahead on that,” he said.

MWAA spokesman David Mold said in a statement Thursday the airports authority will continue to work with Metro during the testing process.

“The Airports Authority thanks and congratulates everyone who has worked together to reach this important milestone, and we look forward to the Silver Line bringing new Metro service to Fairfax and Loudoun counties, including a connection to Washington Dulles International Airport, along with new jobs and economic development to the National Capital Region,” the statement said.

Julie Coons, president of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said workers in the region have been waiting for the line to open before returning to offices more regularly, rather than fight traffic. She said she was excited the project is months away from opening.

“It will really accelerate the return to work that may still be a hybrid form,” Coons said. “Metro is critical in the transportation options that all of us need to go to work, but also to live a fun and productive life in this region. It’s an incredibly important development.”

The Silver Line’s first phase, with four stops in Tysons and one in Reston, opened in 2014. Construction of the second phase began in 2014.

Toll road users are paying nearly half the cost of the extension, with Fairfax and Loudoun counties, as well as MWAA, also contributing.

Silver Line extension to Dulles inches closer to completion after years of delay

MWAA declared the project substantially completed in December. Since then, Metro and airports authority officials have gone over items that are incomplete or were flagged out of concern. With Metro’s declaration of operational readiness, the transit agency will gain provisional control of the extension for testing, but will not gain full ownership until the line is about to open.

Delay have proved costly for MWAA, which paid contractors more than $8 million to continue to supervise the project until it was turned over to Metro.

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