Or: If a rail line no one will ride doesn’t run, is it news?
One minor news item the past week was this notice from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) that their review of the Silver Line Phase 1 Substantial Completion Submission from the Bechtel-led Dulles Transit Partners (DTP) had “determined the contractor has not yet met the contract requirements for substantial completion.” As a result, the Silver Line will not be running anytime soon.
This garnered a few mentions in the news, minor discussion, no brouhaha. Because, honestly, who cares? (Er, apart from Toll Road drivers who won’t ride the Silver Line but will foot much of the bill.)
A more instructive story was this bit of deceptively understated analysis by the Post’s Dr. Gridlock which laid out how the Silver Line will be hampered, to put it mildly, by systemic limitations. At peak performance, the Silver Line will deliver a decidedly suboptimal experience:
…Metro calculates the normal travel time between Wiehle Avenue and Metro Center at 41 minutes. That’s a fairly long time on a train. Shady Grove to Metro Center is 36 minutes. Vienna to Metro Center is 29 minutes…
An air traveler bound for the District would prefer an express from Dulles to the District. A commuter who boards at Wiehle Avenue and works at the Pentagon or Crystal City wants a stop at Rosslyn for a switch to the Blue Line.
Neither of those riders will be interested in the four stops in Tysons Corner, each stop two minutes apart.
And if you haven’t unpacked the “Metro calculates” portion of Dr. Gridlock’s quote: Consider for a moment how often the trip from “Vienna to Metro Center is 29 minutes.” From Vienna to Metro Center is normally 45+ minutes, so that trip from Wiehle to Metro Center is guaranteed to be at least an hour unless you’re riding very early or very late.
That, unfortunately, is not even the most disheartening aspect of the ongoing fiasco for potential Loudoun County metro riders.
First, some background: With Phase I’s westernmost station at Wiehle Avenue in Reston, some Loudoun County commuters might have hoped the original Silver Line opening date of summer 2013 would hold, or that the revised opening date of December 2013 could happen. Now, because of safety concerns about the current state of the metro extension, it appears that summer 2014 is the next likely milestone.
If DTP cannot deliver a functioning Phase I of the Silver Line by October, 2014, the company could face a maximum $60 million penalty.
That’s bad news for Bechtel, to be sure. It appears they have tried to be thrifty throughout the course of Phase I. You may recall several years ago when Phase II was under discussion, some Virginia public officials balked at the floated “Project Labor Agreement” (PLA) requirement which would have given preferences to union labor.
Proponents of the measure point to the fact that Dulles Transit Partners, the lead contractor for Phase 1 of the 23-mile project, voluntarily adopted the pre-project agreement outlining the terms and conditions of work, which proponents say provided a steady, reliable supply of union labor and kept costs down. But opponents say this type of agreement discriminates against the 96 percent of Virginia construction workers who are non-union, and could drive up costs by scaring off potential bidders wary of adopting it.
DTP’s project director stated the work rules kept the contractor from paying overtime wages at night and “definitely saved money.”
Since being lured from Maryland to Fairfax County in 2011, Bechtel Corporation’s Global Operations headquarters has been a “huge coup” for the commonwealth. The company has brought jobs, investment and prestige to Virginia.
Their background on major public works projects, however, might lead one to the conclusion it is little surprise the Silver Line grand opening appears to be a year late, and counting. For information on Bechtel’s history with delivery schedules, cost containment and safety issues on Boston’s “Big Dig” project – if you have the stomach for it – read here, here, and here.
Indeed, hopeful metro riders could be encouraged by the fact that Bechtel’s DTP was underbid by about $10 million for Phase II of the Silver line by Clark Construction and Kiewit Infrastructure South, operating as “Capital Rail Constructors” (CRC). As a result, CRC is lead contractor for Phase II.
With a targeted completion date of July, 2018, CRC will build three stations in Fairfax County, three stations in Loudoun County and 11.4 miles of track. There is presently no reason to think Phase II will not deliver on schedule.
In a project as complex as the metro extension to Loudoun County, timing, safety and management issues are inevitable and those which have arisen cannot all be attributed to Bechtel/DTP. Or to put it another way, it is possible things could have gone worse without a lead contractor with DTP’s experience and pedigree.
One bizarre episode from Phase I was a soil testing crew’s discovery of a heretofore unknown bridge foundation buried at the intersection of I-66 and the Dulles Connector. The 11 steel pile and pier foundations apparently were installed yet never used more than 30 years ago when the Orange Line was built.
Concerns arose over whether the 30-year-old pilings would have the 50-year minimum lifespan required for rail structures, but DTP engineers determined the old foundations could still be used. Undoubtedly this discovery saved time on the project and reduced expenses later to be borne by Toll Road drivers.
By mid-2018, Loudoun County residents ostensibly will have better commuting options than currently exist.
On the less promising side, until 2018 the quickest access to a long train ride is going to be via the Mother of All Traffic Choke Points, the parking garage at Wiehle Avenue in Reston, which incidentally will be the only available parking for the entire five-station Phase I portion of the Silver Line.
If you can’t drive to Wiehle, you will need to take a commuting leg on bus or with a Kiss and Ride buddy, which will deposit you at a Silver Line station to begin your meander through Tysons en route to the Rosslyn station, which is currently the only tunnel entrance to DC. And which, it should be noted, is currently at maximum capacity, such that WMATA will need to ration Blue Line trains in order to make room for all of the new Silver Line runs coming through.
Some may have doubts that Silver Line trains will be able consistently to travel unimpeded from Arlington to Foggy Bottom, or in the case of backups will even be able to get reliably from Reston to Arlington. Such doubters may also question the viability of a commuting method which for many riders will entail at minimum a 1.5 hour trip, door-to-door, in each direction.
These doubters and naysayers will hardly be assuaged by metro’s long term forecast which does actually plan for a second Rosslyn station and “express” lines throughout the system…
… by 2040.
Therefore, if you are middle aged now, you will be dead or certainly not a commuting citizen by the time metro from Loudoun delivers on the promise of convenient service to DC. If you are a millennial, and you are making plans based on public works improvements to be available in 26 years, please listen up: You are as good as dead already, in spirit. That is no way to live.
[And lest I be accused of overstating the case, it should be acknowledged that some Loudoun County residents commuting to certain locations in Arlington could see advantages from the Silver Line when it finally opens. I am certain there are no other caveats.]