Dullas Rail: Continuing the Litany of Lower Ridership and Higher Costs

New, lower rider estimates for Dulles rail expose big costs

By: Barbara Hollingsworth 12/28/10 8:05 PM

Local Opinion Editor

What if they built a $6 billion Metrorail extension and nobody came?

That’s not just a rhetorical question. Last week, the Federal Transit Administration announced advanced payments for a number of its New Starts projects. On the list was Dulles Rail, which will be receiving $19.7 million (out of the total federal share of $900 million) for Phase 1 — an 11.7-mile Metrorail extension now under construction, which will run from West Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston.

According to the FTA’s own press release, “The extension is projected to serve 85,700 daily riders by 2030, including an estimated 10,000 new daily transit riders.”

Since Phase 1 of Dulles Rail will cost a minimum of $3.1 billion, that comes out to $310,000 for each new rider. Taxpayers would be better off financially giving each of them a brand new Lamborghini Gallardo (MSRP $237,600) or his and hers matching Tesla Roadsters (MSRP $109,000) instead.

The 10,000 new daily rider figure is significant for three other reasons:

First, the Silver Line is supposed to entice tens of thousands of commuters to leave their cars at home and take Metro to work at Tysons Corner, the nation’s 12th largest job center. But the latest FTA ridership projection does not reflect a major shift from cars to mass transit.

Second, that 10,000 figure is just a third of the estimate contained in the 2004 Dulles Rail Environmental Impact Statement, which predicted at least 29,100 new riders. This means that the Fairfax Board of Supervisors approved much higher densities around the four Tysons Corner Metro stations based on what now appears to be an erroneous assumption. And if only a third of the expected increase in new ridership materializes, only a third of the projected benefits of Dulles Rail will be realized.

Third, the latest new ridership figure is even less than the 13,600 new daily riders projected by 2020 for a 23-mile bus rapid transit project that was initially submitted by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation in November 2000, but later abandoned in favor of heavy rail even though Metrorail will cost taxpayers $288,875 more for each new rider.

The BRT system — which included at least three rail-convertible stations located in the median of the Dulles Airport Access Road — would have taken passengers from the Orange Line all the way to Dulles International Airport for a total cost of $287.3 million — or $21,125 for each new daily rider — while taking 3,600 more cars off the road!

Federal New Starts money is supposed to be used to fund innovative transit projects that are also cost-effective. Dulles Rail is neither.

Which brings us to Phase 2, which is now estimated to cost $1 billion more than original estimates, bringing the total cost of the entire 23-mile Silver Line project to a mind-boggling $6.5 billion.

The project’s own backers concede that the Dulles Airport station will be the least used of all Silver Line stops. So if only 10,000 new commuters will be riding the rails to jobs-rich Tysons Corner by 2030, a much smaller number of luggage-toting travelers will brave the hour-long slog to the airport, especially since Reagan National Airport is so much more accessible to downtown D.C.

Unless and until the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority comes up with a better way to spend $3 billion, Phase 2 should be moth-balled and replaced with a BRT route running from the West Falls Church Metro station to the airport along the already-built Dulles Access Road.

All MWAA would have to do to whisk air passengers to the airport in style is buy some very swanky limousines.


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