You can almost see the finish line from Wiehle Station.
Commercial airlines circle above on their approach to Dulles International Airport. In the distance the Blue Ridge frames long runways on a plateau at the base of the Piedmont. The view leads to an imposing destination: Washington Dulles International Airport.
Now comes the Silver Line, connecting Washington and a powerful economic corridor to the gateway to the rest of the world.
It will take four more years and nearly $6 billion to complete a vision that began 56 years ago on farmland at the Loudoun-Fairfax line. The Silver Line, the nation’s largest public works project, aims to move people and money up and down the corridor by rail as it connects Washington with the affluent exurbs on the way to the airport.
It’s taken a while to get excited about this idea.
Washingtonians weren’t crazy about traveling 26 miles to farmland beyond the Beltway. Members of Congress, national commuters who frequently flew from their districts to the conveniently situated National (now Reagan) Airport, were so put off that they favored keeping National open for domestic air traffic and building a highway from Washington to Dulles for the mortals.
A four-lane airport access-road was built “inside” the eight-lane Dulles Toll Road (State Route 267). Travelers trekked to the new airport from the speedy inside lanes as commuters from Washington’s growing exurbs merged into congested outside lanes. Congress kept its cozy airport across the Potomac from the National Mall with its inspiring views of the monuments and the Capitol Dome.
Now, the median becomes the route for a rail line that fulfills the vision of a transportation corridor: the spine of the Capital District’s economic prowess.
With the opening of the first phase of the Silver Line on Saturday, the backbone is still missing a few crucial vertebrae. Dulles Airport is four stations and six miles away. Given cost overruns and a seven-month delay in opening Phase One to Reston, skeptics question whether the Dulles connection can be completed by its projected opening in 2018.
While the Silver Line will extend into Loudoun with stations at Routes 606 and 772, the route beyond the airport is, for Northern Virginia, more a spur than a destination. Looking west toward Loudoun stretches the political and financial capital that accrues from the second phase of Silver Line development.
In Loudoun, extending the Silver Line into the county was a close call. A contentious issue that divided preservationists and proponents of growth, the extension was approved by a single vote. By supporting the Silver Line after opposing it, Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) cast the deciding vote in a 5-4 decision two years ago this month. The vote has lasting impact.
Today, Loudoun County is all in. Committed with Fairfax and the airports authority to 25 percent of the project’s costs, Loudoun County has approved $275 million for the project and has appropriated $300 million as a cushion.
Loudoun has the land, the money and infrastructure to set ambitions high. County officials recognize the potential for substantial economic impact. “The Silver Line is one of the biggest economic game changers in the county’s history,” says Buddy Rizer, the director of the county’s Economic Development Department.
In May, an economic impact study by George Mason economist Stephen Fuller put the value of the airport-transportation gateway at $38 billion: $21 billion in business revenue, $15 billion in employment income from 387,000 jobs and $2 billion in state and local taxes. That represents about 5 percent of the Capitol region’s annual gross domestic product.
Much of the economic impact will be delivered around the seven Silver Line stations in Phase Two. A study by real estate analysts Robert Charles Less and Co. puts net impact at $400 million in revenue by 2040. The analysts reached that number by calculating expected revenue from real property tax, personal property tax and other taxes and by subtracting expenditures for education, public safety and necessary infrastructure.
The overall economic impact from the Silver Line could be many times that amount considering income from job, retail, commercial and residential growth.
Fuller, the director of Mason’s Center for Regional Analysis, suggests the county’s economy would grow by a factor of 10 between now and 2040.
The real number, of course, is incalculable, the sum of an equation founded on growth patterns, economic activity, trend lines, optimism, politics and uncertainty.
Meantime, county officials face a series of big questions that will likely affect the outcome. The biggest: What will the Silver Line really cost toll-payers and taxpayers?
Dulles Toll Road users are currently shouldering nearly half of the costs, a far bigger share than originally predicted. Since construction began six years ago, there have been five toll increases on the Dulles Toll Road raising a common round trip from $2.50 to $7 or, viewed as a monthly tab for typical weekday commuters, from $50 to $140.
In 2004, tolls were expected to cover about 25 percent of the Silver Line’s construction costs, according to an agreement between the Commonwealth of Virginia, which launched the project, and the contractor, Dulles Transit Partners, led by Bechtel. Total costs were then estimated at $4 billion.
As project costs rose to $6 billion, so has pressure to exact more revenue from the toll road. Only recent intervention from federal and state government has spared drivers from paying more, adding nearly $2 billion in funding, mostly in loans. While tolls are frozen through completion in 2018, there is no final cap on tolls and they could be increased again.
The impact of the Silver Line’s cost has been painfully apparent to drivers who use the road regularly, as well as to many who have opted to avoid it because of the cost.
The scenario is the same with rail. Taking the Silver Line from Loudoun to Washington probably may not save money or time: a round-trip fare could cost $11.50 or more and could take 90 minutes or more each way.
That raises the most crucial question: Will toll-payers and taxpayers be forgiving if the costly project fails to quickly turn silver into gold?