Despite low D.C. Metro Silver Line ridership, leaders pin hopes on growth



Ken Reid put his political future at stake 11 years ago when he became the deciding vote on whether to bring Metro deeper into Virginia.

A Loudoun County supervisor at the time, Reid opposed the Silver Line extension for years. He had a “No to Metro” sticker on his car. He said the cost of the $3 billion project wasn’t worth the benefits or tax burden.

When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted 5-4 to support the project in July 2012 — pitching in the county’s $270 million share — Reid sided with supporters, persuaded by a last-minute funding plan and its overwhelming support from constituents. He still didn’t believe the rail line would live up to projections.

“I’m a realist,” Reid told The Washington Post after the vote. “I don’t think it’s going to get the ridership people think it’s going to get.”

More than a decade later and four years overdue, the extension arrived to much fanfare in November. Confetti blanketed the entrance of the Ashburn station as cheery Metro workers handed out commemorative pennants. Four months later, it’s replaced by handfuls of bleary-eyed commuters, air travelers and often-empty rail cars that snake up and down the burgeoning Silver Line tech corridor. Trains arrive about every 15 minutes along the six stations, often opening doors to no one.

Silver Line extension opens, adding six stations, Dulles connection after years of delays

Reid’s prediction, so far, seems prescient. A 2012 environmental analysis estimated the extension would generate 17,900 daily trips by its seventh year, while a Virginia study three years later estimated 50,000 daily riders. But on weekdays between mid-November and early February, the new stations accounted for about 3,700 daily trips, or 1.4 percent of the rail system’s total, according to Metro data.

It’s too soon to know whether early predictions will be reached, but figures from the extension’s first months show light usage at new stations, which emerged during a pandemic that has slashed transit ridership. In the weeks since a six-decade dream to connect Dulles International Airport and downtown D.C. became a reality, Metro’s westward expansion hasn’t budged its ailing financial prospects as transit officials pin their hopes on growth along the booming tech corridor.

Regional leaders and transit officials, whose expectations have been reshaped by the realities of the pandemic, say they are optimistic after the slow start. Many say they are pleased at early ridership trends they believe already are demonstrating the extension’s worth.

“The Silver Line extension has really been great, not only for the Metro system in general, but it has been extremely important for the commonwealth and the economic development in that region,” Metro Board chairman Paul C. Smedberg said last month. “There’s a lot of people moving out there.”

Silver Line supporters note that estimates from years ago — when ridership was twice as high — would be the equivalent of about 2.5 percent of daily trips, which isn’t significantly different from current numbers. Still, recent weekdays have lured a smattering of commuters to the system’s newest and most advanced stations.

Three factors reducing ridership

The 11.5-mile Silver Line extension stretches from the Wiehle-Reston East station in Fairfax County to Ashburn in Loudoun County, forming the second segment of a line that opened in 2014. Developers and civic leaders have long viewed a Metro connection between the region’s international airport and its central business district — via a burgeoning Tysons — as key to spurring regional growth and easing commuter traffic from fast-growing Loudoun.

The parking garage at the Ashburn station, the line’s western terminus, swells with cars on the busiest mornings as commuters drive in from points west. Dulles has been the busiest and most high-profile station from the start.

The other four stations see far fewer passengers. Loudoun Gateway, for example, is averaging 184 weekday entries — about 10 riders per hour. On Sundays, that average number of daily entries is 80. The Herndon, Innovation Center and Reston Town Center stations average about 500 entries each weekday.

The ridership numbers would be greater if not for three circumstances out of the Silver Line’s control, Metro leaders say.

A two-month Loudoun County Transit worker strike has hobbled bus service and connections to Metro stations, county officials say.

Metro also continues to recover from a train shortage that began in fall 2021, when its regulatory agency suspended more than half of the transit system’s rail cars because of a defect found in wheels and axles of some cars. While the cars have been returning, the transit agency doesn’t expect to be at full strength until at least summer. Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said longer waits are discouraging potential riders.

“I’m still convinced that the service delivery will also correspond a lot to ridership,” he said recently. “As we keep improving our frequency, more and more people will come to rely on the system … Overall, I feel pretty good where we are.”

The fastest way to Dulles from downtown D.C.: Driving or Silver Line?

The most significant factor altering ridership is the coronavirus pandemic, which has reduced transit usage nationwide and cut Metrorail ridership in half. Those numbers have ticked up recently, coinciding with more people returning to offices and Metro adding more trains into service.

Metro has recently set multiple pandemic-era daily ridership records as commuters return to the system, which also has brought more passengers to the Silver Line.

Dulles station as a selling point

The six new stations — three in Loudoun and three in Fairfax — average about 3,700 entries on weekdays, nearly 3,300 on Saturdays and more than 2,700 on Sundays, according to Metro records through early February. On average, riders are taking about 25,000 trips each week on the new extension, Clarke said.

Unlike other stations, Dulles is busiest on Sundays, a hectic day for travel. More than 1,300 people, on average, come through the station that day compared with more than 1,100 on other days.

Over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Metro served nearly 11 times more rides from Dulles than a year earlier, when bus service preceded the rail extension, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said. According to a Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) customer survey, 7 percent of travelers took Metro when arriving at the airport in recent weeks, while 11 percent used Metro to return home.

The Silver Line has become a selling point the airports authority uses when airlines consider expanding services, officials said. Chryssa Westerlund, MWAA’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer, said she is pleased with early ridership numbers on the extension.

“The Silver Line station is a game changer for Dulles International Airport passengers, employees, airlines and businesses,” Westerlund said in a statement. “Rail service provides a low-cost connection between the airport and points around the region.”

The rail connection has also turned Dulles into a more viable option for air travelers who previously looked to Reagan National Airport because of its Metro station.

“It’s more convenient, because it’s pretty inconvenient to ask a friend to drive you from D.C. to Dulles,” said Cameron Batchelor, 24, who recently arrived at the Dulles station on a Metro train while on his way to Ireland.

Airport workers such as Isabel Velasquez, a Starbucks employee, said the extension is quicker than the bus she rode before the extension.

“I go faster in the train,” said Velasquez, who estimated she saves about an hour getting home to Chantilly. “Before, I had to wait. There was only one bus coming over there for me to go home.”

Among the commuters on a sparsely filled train one recent morning was Francis Quaynor, 55, who also lives near Chantilly and rides Metro once or twice a week to downtown’s McPherson Square, where he works at a law firm.

Before the Silver Line, Quaynor would drive to work, spending about $6.85 in tolls each way, compared to between $3.85 and $6 for a Metro ride and $65 a month to park at the Loudoun Gateway station — a fraction of what he spent in D.C. As important as the financial savings, he said, he no longer deals with stifling traffic and the anxiety of not knowing if a downtown parking spot awaits.

“My commute to the station is only barely 10 minutes, and there’s plenty of parking, so I don’t have to reserve parking,” he said. “No stress.”

While he always has a train seat to himself, he said it won’t be long until the rail cars are fuller. He watches more and more people enter and exit at Reston Town Center, a station surrounded by large office buildings and new development. Quaynor said he expects the Silver Line will draw people from crowded and expensive D.C. neighborhoods to the more spacious suburbs, a trend that emerged during the pandemic with the aid of telework.

He said Beltway traffic is less of a consideration with the arrival of the Silver Line.

“It’s just going to grow,” Quaynor said. “There are going to be more riders in the next couple of years because more people are probably going to realize: ‘Hey, we can move out this way because there is transportation all the way back from Ashburn.’”

The car vs. rail equation

The future of the Silver Line is not without challenges.

Metro is facing unprecedented budget problems with the loss of fare revenue from commuters, contributing to a projected $500 million budget hole next year that is expected to widen. Metro leaders have called on regional officials and Congress to establish a permanent source of funding that could replace the missing revenue, but no plan has surfaced.

The budget problems spurred the transit agency to propose a 5 percent fare hike, on average, for most riders beginning July 1. But among those who would be hit hardest are Silver Line riders, who travel the farthest and could see a more than $2.50 increase per ride during off-peak hours.

Metro proposes fare, service hikes while emerging from pandemic

Other riders say the lengthy train rides can be a deterrent.

For Mardelle Singleton, 22, a Leesburg resident who commutes to D.C. five days a week to work at a technical theater, Metro has mostly become a welcome addition except for the travel time of a 35-mile rail trip.

“It’s fairly convenient,” she said. “The only problem is that it takes 90 minutes for me to get to where I’m going.” (On average, Metro estimates it takes 74 minutes to ride from Ashburn to Union Station.)

Clarke has floated ideas such as creating “express” trains that stop at fewer stations, but Metro, unlike some other subway systems, was built with one set of tracks in each direction, making those logistics difficult. Adding more trains — something Clarke said will occur in the coming months — could also exacerbate a labor shortage that has reduced the availability of train operators.

“The challenge of the Silver Line is that the length of the Silver Line is so long comparatively, you need so many more train sets and operators to run the length,” he said. “If you’re struggling with operators and train sets, it’s so much more to run 20 miles than it is to run five miles.”

Lighter traffic on some days is holding back potential riders from using the rail extension, said Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), who is also a Metro board member. That could change if more people return to offices or start to feel the financial pinch of rising tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, he said.

“There are so many things that go into the equation, especially for the longer-haul commuters like me,” he said. “Time is money for people. When the traffic is light, then the Metro equation doesn’t look as attractive.”

The transportation benefits were only part of the Silver Line’s allure. Planners, developers and multiple studies indicated it would lead to an economic boom. Even as commuting and office use has dropped during the pandemic, interest from companies looking to relocate to the corridor hasn’t waned, said Michael Rocks of Tysons-based Rocks Engineering.

The company is building several projects along the line, including offices, homes and hotel space next to the new Herndon station and another that includes two large office buildings near Innovation Center.

“We were about four years delayed on Metro’s opening, and we went through the worst global pandemic in 100 years,” Rocks said. “So with that backdrop, we’re pretty excited about the ridership we’re seeing.”

After Silver Line, Tysons makes progress in becoming less car-centric

More than a decade has passed since Reid cast the deciding vote to advance the project as a Loudoun supervisor. An early opponent, he changed his mind after a plan was created for special tax districts around stations in which new development would bear much of the cost, rather than county residents.

“I never expected the ridership to be what they expected. But again, if I hadn’t voted to opt in, I’m sure there was going to be another supervisor there who was going to do it,” he said. “The pressure from the public was so great.”

Now living in McLean, Reid, 64, has ridden the Silver Line extension but isn’t a regular user. His employer recently ordered workers to return to the office five days a week, but despite living near a Metro station, Reid drives. There’s no station near his office in southern Fairfax County.

Of the Silver Line, he said, “you can build it, but they don’t necessarily come.”

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