GGW debates: Build Metro above or below ground at Dulles?
With costs rising, a vote by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to support an underground station has pitted elected officials against each other over the location of the future stop. And the controversy even thretens to scuttle the second phase of the Silver Line entirely.
MWAA supports an underground station adjacent to the terminal. But others, including Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, are calling for MWAA to choose an elevated station near the north parking garage. This would save about $330 million, but customers would wait for trains on an outdoor platform and would have to take a moving walkway 600 feet farther than the underground option.
Yesterday, Federal Transit Administration Peter Rogoff discussed the issue. He noted that 3 times as many people will use the Tysons stations than Dulles', and that the majority of passengers at Dulles itself will probably be airport workers, based on other airport stations elsewhere. Those are some of the facts that led him and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to push the region to accept the aerial station in order to keep the project moving.
Here's what our contributors have to say about the issue:
Unfortunately it's looking more and more like the same thing is going on here. If Virginia pulls its support for the project, that's the end of Phase II no matter what MWAA wants. The choice therefore may not be between an above or below ground station, but rather between an above ground station or nothing at all.
As much as I agree that a below ground station would be ideal, we may have to accept that a less ideal station is better than no station at all. The above ground option is simply the best compromise for the greater good. Again.
I think the above ground station is a mistake. While 5 minutes of walking doesn't seem like that much time, it could be burdensome for tired travelers coming from longer international flights, disabled and elderly travelers, or travelers with kids.
Anything that makes it easier to use Metro is good. If the Silver Line is the success we all hope it will be, it could drive more flyers out to Dulles. If that indeed happens, the station should be as convenient for folks as possible.
On the other hand, $330 million is a lot. But I am worried that in several years, we'll regret not having a station underground.
Am I the only person who says, "Sure, let's play brinkmanship, what the hell?"
I mean, I know that if the extension out to Dulles was nixed tomorrow, that money wouldn't suddenly be magically available to build a separated Blue Line in the city the next day. But that's what should happen, if you ask me. Building more and more capacity farther and farther from the center, without bolstering capacity in the core, is just going to lead to problems in the long run.
We have the extension to Tysons Corner. Construction on that leg isn't going to stop now. But if the extension to Reston, Herndon, and Dulles doesn't happen, I'm not going to cry about it.
What I want to know is why this particular underground station is so expensive. I get the desire to keep it out of the sightlines of the Saarinen terminal, but the plan calls for a lot of tunneling that seems excessive.
I'd love to see MWAA develop another alternative that involves bringing rail in along one of the existing roadbeds and changing the auto circulation to fit around that, perhaps like the design John Cambron proposed last year. But I fear that's too much of a change at this stage.
I won't cry for Reston and Herndon, either. However, serving Dulles is and should be a major priority. That airport is one of the region's key links to the outside world, and making that connection as seamless as possible is of vital importance to the region.
Cities have always been built around transportation infrastructure hubs, whether that was a great natural port or the confluence of two rivers, or the convergence of several rail lines or highways. Dulles offers a great opportunity, and it's important that the region use this asset well. Dulles might have been a white elephant when first built, but now it has the luxury of spacious runways, excess capacity, and room to grow that other airports do not have.
Ideally, I think we'd also have a direct rail link to downtown as well, but those kinds of improvements can be added later. Metro has considered some options and discussed them on their blog.
If we were really interested in making the connection to Dulles as seamless as possible, we'd have a direct express rail link to the city.
A ride on the Silver Line isn't terribly long for a simple, direct ride to downtown, leaving regularly. It will be appealing for travelers and tourists. I still think the trip will be too long for many who would otherwise need to change trains. Even those of us that would have to ride from some parts of Arlington would still need to change, and that creates a much longer trip.
When I think of a true airport rail link, I think of the CAT in Vienna. That being said, I still use the blue line in Chicago to get from the airport to town. And that can be a very long ride (the website says it is 45 minutes to downtown, but that seems optimistic).
I don't see an underground station being a necessity. So long as it is easily accessible, I am all on board. Especially if it gets the desired savings and keeps the project moving forward.
Also, speaking of timing, a friend of mine was recently in Paris and I asked him to time the trip from the airport to Châtelet. Approximate travel time was 50 minutes, which is about the time projected for the trip from Dulles to Metro Center.
According to PlanItMetro, the trip from Metro Center to Dulles will be 52 minutes. I guess my point is not that the extension to Dulles will not be the best it can be, but will be equivalent to other large airport extensions, though some cities have direct connections, like the express line to London's Heathrow Airport.
However, I think since the Dulles connection will be "good" at best, is that more reason to have a less expensive above ground station if none of that money is going to go to making the metro trip any faster? I'm not 100% sure myself.
I'm split in regard to this debate.
On the one hand, I think $300 million is too much for the underground station. What is the interest payment on that each year, like $9M? And how many people will use it per year? It winds up costing like $2-4 per person per trip. Ask people, would you pay $3 to be teleported 5 minutes closer to the gate and I doubt many people would take your offer. So, I'd be against it on that point.
On the other hand, if the choice is between raising the toll on the toll road to build the underground station and not raising the toll and building an above ground station, I'd choose the aerial option. The road, while very expensive, is still probably underpriced and so let's at least put that money to good use - even if not ideal use.
If there was an option to raise the toll on the toll road and use the money to meet some other, highly rated transit need, I would choose that option. But that option is not on the table.
Passenger convenience and comfort should take priority, because we want people to use the mass-transit option.
But from the perspective of aesthetics, the an aboveground station is better. The below ground station would not be one of metro's dramatic vaults, but instead a lower, split-tube station akin to the ones at Wheaton and Forest Glen. From there, passengers still have to go up an escalator, into the basement. The transit riders won't get the sense of arrival and departure that can distract from the drudgeries of air travel.
Train riders can only see a vista from the side of the railcar. An aboveground station would expose those arriving to a broadside of architectural drama that isn't always easy to get. Once off the train, an architecturally interesting station could frame the terminal better, like a smaller echo in a sympathetic style. You'd be able to see the terminal from the platform, and those in the terminal would be able to see the trains arriving and departing.
But there's no guarantee. In the rush to save costs, aesthetics could be a casualty like convenience. Or it could compensate for the longer walk. But you have to be willing to pay for either.
After believing initially that the few hundred feet length of tunnel was a huge mistake, I've now come around to the fact that probably won't deter many riders.
But I still have big concerns about above ground vs. below ground. I'm sure that waiting outside, exposed to the elements is going to discourage use. Passengers won't want to wait in the DC humid heat or cold winters, as opposed to being underground, in relative comfort.
But seems like consensus is building around above ground. I do really like the approach to Dulles by car and look forward to being able to take in via train.
Above versus below ground is one of the most significant decisions, but there are many other design elements that can at least make an aboveground station more or less pleasant. For example, the moving walkway that passengers would use exists today, in a tunnel.
If the station's escalators lead directly to that tunnel, where their bottom ends open right to the corridor, it could mean less work than if riders have to navigate a warren of twisty corridors to get from one to the other.
Similarly, yesterday Rogoff expressed support for walls or other elements that could make the aboveground station less weather-beaten. If MWAA is going to save a lot of money by building the station outdoors, they should at least use a small fraction of that money to make it a good quality aboveground station.
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