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The feds to WMATA: You've got big problems, and you have to fix them

The Federal Transit Administration came down hard on WMATA today, deeming the agency deficient in both how it manages itself on the whole and, more specifically, how it operates its trains and buses. As a result, WMATA will need to make some serious changes, and fast.

Image from SP8254 on Flickr.

System-wide, FTA inspectors cited 54 overall safety violations: 44 for Metrorail and 10 for Metrobus. The deficiencies come despite efforts to step up the agency-wide commitment to safety that followed the fatal 2009 Red Line crash at Fort Totten.

Chief among the problem areas is that Metrorail's Rail Operations Control Center is both understaffed and doing a poor job of immediately fixing safety hazards as well as managing routine maintenance projects.

Other issues include:

  • The Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) is understaffed.
  • Rail Traffic Controllers have not been regularly recertified/retrained as required.
  • The ROCC has a high level of noise and distraction.
  • Radio discipline is poor.
  • ROCC lacks formal procedures, manuals, and checklists.
  • Rail Traffic Controllers use their cell phones while on duty.
  • WMATA faces challenges in hiring and training qualified Controllers.
  • Rail Traffic Controller training is inadequate.
  • Accident investigations do not look at the ROCC's actions, just those of the train operator.
  • Radio coverage remains poor in some areas.
  • There is not enough time for maintenance during overnight hours.
  • WMATA has reduced trackwork windows to cut back on customer dissatisfaction.
  • The lack of trackwork time is contributing to a backlog of maintenance.
  • Track worker protection training is not occurring as required.
  • WMATA doesn't have a strategy for emergency response training.
  • Rules compliance checks are not performed often enough or with regularity as required.
  • Not all issues with the ATC (signal) system are being communicated to maintenance.
  • The ATC department is understaffed.
  • Critical parts are not always kept in stock.
  • Not enough is being done to reduce fire/smoke issues in tunnels.
What WMATA's got to do

As a result of the findings the FTA is issuing a safety directive to WMATA that outlines how to fix each violation and requests updates to the 2016 budget to account for funding the necessary changes.

Also, in line with a recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board that followed January's Yellow Line tragedy, State Safety Oversight Agencies will inspect Metro's tunnel ventilation systems, and the FTA will give WMATA further instruction based on the findings.

WMATA has 30 days to respond to the report with additional information. During this time, WMATA may suggest equivalent, alternative actions. Within 31 to 90 days of the report, WMATA must submit a plan for taking action.

Starting immediately, WMATA and FTA leaders will meet monthly until the FTA determines the meetings are no longer necessary or can be less frequent.


With federal approval in hand, the pieces needed to build the Purple Line fall into place

The Federal Transit Administration has just issued a Record of Decision for the Purple Line, basically approving the 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It's one of the last pieces needed to build the line, which is scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2020.

This just got one stop closer to reality. Image from Montgomery County.

Maryland Transit Administration officials made the announcement this morning during a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting about the Purple Line, which Purple Line NOW! and BethesdaNow subsequently tweeted.

The FTA will make a formal announcement next week. The agency's decision means Maryland can start purchasing right-of-way to build the $2.37 billion Purple Line, and makes it eligible for federal funding. President Obama recently included it in his 2015 budget, which Congress will have to approve later this year.

With state funding in place and an ongoing search for a private partner in the works, nearly all of the money needed has been secured. As a sign of how likely the Purple Line is to get built, the Planning Board is meeting today to make detailed recommendations about how it should interact with surrounding neighborhoods, like what materials to use for retaining walls.

Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney has a column today urging the affluent Town of Chevy Chase, which has been fighting the project for years and recently hired a congressman's brother to lobby on their behalf, to lay down their arms and use their money to make the project better instead.

"Some people have more money than good judgment," he wrote. "The town should end its obstruction of a worthy project. Burning money is unwise even if you have it to spare."


The Purple Line gets a boost from President Obama's budget

Yesterday, the Purple Line took a big step forward when the federal government recommended giving it a $100 million grant for next year and providing additional funding in the coming years. Now, all it needs is approval from Congress.

Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

President Obama included the $2.2 billion, 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in his 2015 budget. It's one of 7 transit projects the Federal Transit Administration recommended for a "New Starts" grant, including the Baltimore Red Line, an extension of LA's Purple Line, Boston's Green Line extension, the Columbia River Crossing in Portland, and commuter rail in Orlando and Fort Worth.

The agency also recommended Congress give the Purple Line a "full funding grant agreement" committing it to help pay for construction. Maryland hopes the federal government will provide $900 million, though it's unclear what the final amount will be.

The state has already agreed to put in up to $900 million for the project. Montgomery and Prince George's counties will give $220 million total, while the state is looking for a private partner to build and operate the line and pitch in additional funds.

The Purple Line has been discussed in some form since 1986. If everything goes right, it could start construction in 2015 and open in 2020. But getting here hasn't been easy.

From the beginning, it faced vehement opposition from the exclusive Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, because the line would follow the Capital Crescent Trail, a former freight rail line that bisected its golf course. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland didn't want it passing through the heart of campus, and even hired former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan (now running for a fourth term) to oppose it.

Maryland was able to find a workable solution for both parties, and the Purple Line now enjoys the support of both county executives, elected officials in both counties, and hundreds of civic, environmental, business, and advocacy groups.

But there are still a few challenges remaining. One is that Congress actually has to approve President Obama's budget and decide how much the "full funding grant agreement" for the Purple Line would be. The other is the Town of Chevy Chase, which continues to oppose the project because of its impacts on the trail. The town recently hired a lobbyist who happens to be the brother of the House transportation committee chair to make the case against the line.

Meanwhile, other residents may sue the government because they feel not enough research has been done about the Purple Line's impacts on a small, shrimp-like creature that's listed as an endangered species but is found several miles away. These things may add additional delay to the Purple Line, but it's unclear whether they're enough to actually halt the project.

In any case, yesterday was a great day for the Purple Line. When I attended my first Purple Line meeting in 2003, as a junior in high school, I assumed that I'd be riding it by now. Hopefully, 28 years after the project was first announced, we won't have to wait much longer.


Columbia Pike streetcar may still get federal funding

Arlington's plans to use federal funding for the Columbia Pike streetcar hit a snag recently, when the project was not accepted into the FTA's Small Starts grant program. Streetcar opponents took this news as a sign that the project is in trouble, but it's not.

Photo by cliff1066â„¢ on Flickr.

The FTA isn't turning down the project permanently. They are requesting changes and suggesting Arlington reapply later this year. Federal rules changed with last year's MAP-21 transportation bill, and so Arlington has to apply under the larger New Starts program instead of Small Starts.

The delay is good, anyway. Another new rule is that once a project is accepted into New Starts, construction has to begin within 2 years. Even if it had won funding this year, Arlington is 3 years away from construction, so next year is the right time to apply in any case.

County Board chairman Walter Tejada confirmed at a board meeting last night that county leaders are still committed to funding and building the streetcar.

It's not really $410 million

Some reports erroneously claim the that FTA turned down the streetcar because it thinks the project will cost $410 million. That's not what happened, explained Arlington transit bureau chief Steven DelGiudice.

The FTA's report on Columbia Pike does cite a $410 million figure, but that isn't for the cost of the streetcar. Instead, it's an insurance figure that shows the worst-case scenario, if everything imaginable were to go wrong. It shows the streetcar cost, plus the cost of other tangential projects nearby, plus a $70 million contingency figure in case of overruns.

What sort of tangential projects? Things like 12th Street in Pentagon City. 12th Street doesn't exist right now. A private developer will build it as part of a skyscraper development, regardless of whether or not there is ever a streetcar.

Once 12th Street is there, it will be a convenient place to put the streetcar. But since Arlington plans to run the streetcar down a street that isn't built yet, FTA's rules say the total has to include all of the street's costs—even though all of the money comes from a developer. FTA assumes that if the development is delayed, the county might have to build the road itself.

The total cost also has to show an insurance contingency for those tangential projects, like 12th Street. Double whammy. FTA also recommended that the county increase its contingency fund from 18 to 35%.

There are a few new costs the FTA identified that will probably increase the budget. They anticipate very heavy ridership on the route, and recommended that the county look at a larger vehicle to meet these capacity demands.

The result is a slightly higher real cost figure, and another paper figure that's way bigger than what the project will actually cost to build. FTA knows it won't really be $410 million. In fact, their cost range says $255 million is just as likely, with the probable cost somewhere in between.

Because the rules of Small Starts require including everything and cap projects at $250 million, the streetcar project has to go under a different program. The Small Starts program is for small, low-cost, particularly easy-to-accomplish projects. Most new rail lines, and many large BRT lines, go through the New Starts program instead.

Since the New Starts program is larger, that also means that the project can get more total dollars of federal funding. The statute allows FTA to provide up to 80% of the funds for a project, but because there are more projects applying than available funding, the federal share is more likely 50%.

The chances of getting New Starts funding are good

According DelGiudice, the FTA's report is very positive for the streetcar and affirms the county's projections.

FTA believes the ridership will be strong, and even suggested Arlington increase the capacity of the streetcar with more cars and a bigger railyard. That shows FTA believes this is a good place for rail transit.

Despite not being accepted into the Small Starts program this year, FTA's report on Columbia Pike is actually very good news and shows the FTA thinks it's a strong project. Arlington can reapply under the larger program, and since they're 3 years away from construction anyway, doing so is not even a delay.

The decision ultimately lies with the County Board to choose whether to apply under New Starts, but if they do, the streetcar project stands a good chance of winning approval next year.


Did the FTA have leeway on the 11th Street bridge?

FTA administrator Peter Rogoff and his PR team are disputing Thursday's story on streetcar tracks on the 11th Street bridge. In that article, I wrote, "The question here is whether FTA had to make the decision they did, or had leeway." It's become even more clear that that indeed is the fundamental question.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

In an op-ed on the Washington Post's All Opinions are Local, Rogoff makes two main points. First, he says that by federal law, FTA had to stop the tracks once they learned about the issue. And second, echoing the statement his communications team put out on Friday, he says FTA gave DDOT several options for including tracks by redoing or modifying environmental reviews.

The second point is mostly irrelevant; DDOT was too far along in the bridge project to reopen the environmental reviews by the time that happened in July of this year. But the first point is indeed the key question. Rogoff says FTA had no leeway. So far, all of the transportation professionals I have spoken with argue that they did.

The options FTA gave DDOT

Let's start with the 2nd claim, that FTA gave DDOT plenty of options in July. The 3 options, according to Brian Farber, Associate Administrator from the Office of Communications and Congressional Affairs, were:

  1. To reopen the FHWA EIS document and evaluate streetcar for the bridge.
  2. To conduct an expedited FTA EA and evaluate streetcar on the bridge.
  3. To extend the northern terminus of the current Historic Anacostia FTA EA to include the 11th Street bridge, and evaluate streetcar from the Anacostia Metro station to the western terminus of the bridge.
In this July 28 letter, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy tells FTA that they've decided to take the tracks off the project, as a result of a meeting a month earlier where USDOT officials "stated that because streetcar infrastructure was not included in the record of decision for [the EIS], it could not be included as part of the bridge construction."

However, this is all happening while the bridge has long been under construction. Work began in December 2009. According to several people familiar with the bridge project, DDOT at this point faced two unpleasant choices: pull the tracks off the bridge, or start an environmental process that could take years.

Besides the extensive public participation process that would have been required, the bridge EIS had drawn a lawsuit for the way it added cross-river vehicular capacity while claiming it didn't. Personally, I agreed with the opponents and think DDOT made a mistake doing the bridge this way. Adding the "missing link" may well draw vehicle trips through the region off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and into DC.

But that's water under the bridge, as it were, and now that the bridge is half built, it doesn't seem wise of DDOT to reopen all those cans of worms. I'm skeptical it would best "save taxpayer monies in the long run" to delay work while a long EIS occurs, and potentially incur huge penalties from the contractor if the EIS takes very long, as it likely would.

People familiar with the discussions (including additional people beyond those I spoke to for the original story) confirm the basic truth of what I reported. Unfortunately, everyone is very reluctant to be quoted publicly. Transportation professionals will inevitably have to work with federal agencies. They don't want to raise the ire of FTA and imperil other projects.

Did FTA have leeway?

All of the options FTA offered involved not putting the tracks on the bridge until after further environmental review. If FTA really felt they had absolutely no choice, then what they did was best. They stopped DDOT as they had to, but they gave DDOT various (unpalatable) alternatives.

But did they have to? I spoke to several transportation professionals who feel FTA could have let the tracks go forward, or at least let DC finish them with local dollars. Commenter Will P (who is familiar with the situation) agreed, writing:

DC had the ability and planned to pay for the rails on the bridge with local money. What FTA is saying is that if DC chose to put in the rails on the Bridge before their mandated studies, they would then be disqualified from getting federal dollars for segments that would connect to the Bridge.
I've asked FTA's media relations folks to further explain the issue from FTA's standpoint, but they aren't experts on federal law, either, and haven't yet gotten back to me with specifics.

This is an unusual situation because the key decision point is coming not during the early design phases or during bidding, but after the project has long been underway. According to people familiar with the process, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had signed off on project documents which did include the streetcars. These include early construction documents and also "Plans, Specifications & Estimates" (PS&E) reports.

Here's the core of the timeline, as best as I can understand it from talking to numerous people:

  1. DDOT completed an EIS for the bridge that included "accommodation" of transit but was vague about what transit exactly would be included. The EIS won an award from FHWA for its public process.
  2. DDOT prepared to build the project with mostly local dollars. They decided to include tracks to save money in the future on the streetcar network.
  3. DDOT switched to use mostly federal money on the project. They were working with FHWA. The construction documents and intermediate PS&Es signed off on by FHWA included the tracks.
  4. At some point, when DDOT asked to switch the type of tracks to comply with Buy America, people at FHWA realized they should involve FTA and talked to FTA about the tracks.
  5. FTA judged that the tracks hadn't gone through proper process. FHWA then told DDOT they couldn't do the tracks without more review.
  6. FTA suggested 3 options for DDOT to get approval for the tracks, which would have required longer process that could have delayed the entire project and cost more money.
  7. In July, DDOT decided not to pursue those and finish the project without the tracks.
In step 3, DDOT officials apparently believed that they had the necessary federal approvals to go ahead with tracks, since FHWA had signed off on documents. Maybe DDOT should have realized they should go talk to FTA. Maybe they were hoping nobody would notice so they didn't have to. Or maybe they honestly thought everything was fine.

Clearly, if DDOT had gone through some more process years ago, we would all be better off today. DDOT officials admit they probably screwed up, in hindsight. But federal processes are very complex. A agency can go extremely slowly and make absolutely sure they cross every t and dot every i (and still maybe make mistakes), or they can try to move faster and do the best they can. DDOT, from at least Dan Tangherlini through Gabe Klein, was trying to move fast and get a lot done. Somewhere along the way (though before Gabe Klein took over), this happened.

But in June, whatever happened before, we were faced with this situation: One federal agency had been telling DDOT they could go ahead; now another stepped in and said no. Maybe federal law is so unambiguous that the tracks can't possibly go forward, even if FHWA had approved them for months, even with local money, that FTA officials had absolutely no choice. But was it?

Could they have said, "That's too bad, this one got by. Hey, FHWA, please try to keep an eye out for stuff like this in the future, and DDOT, we're going to ask you to be a little more careful next time. Okay? Let's just do the tracks anyway and we'll all try to do better."

Or, could they have said, "We're sorry, we really don't think that it's legal to use federal money for the tracks, but if you want to use some local money, we'll let this be a 'nonparticipating' part of the project."

That's the question. Rogoff's letter suggests these two options were not available to FTA. Other transportation professionals say they were. This question defines the issue of whether FTA "put up a roadblock" in July, or just acted as they must.

Update: In the Post piece, Rogoff also adds another option, placing removable blocks on the bridge that can be changed to tracks in the future. Rogoff's piece says DDOT declined to pursue any options, including the removable blocks, but DDOT spokesperson John Lisle says the removable blocks are indeed what DDOT is doing as part of making the bridge "streetcar ready."


Streetcar tracks deleted from 11th Street Bridge (for now)

The $300 million 11th Street bridge project won't have streetcar tracks after all, at the insistence of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Instead, it will have structural elements to make it easier to add tracks in the future, but that will cost much more and take many more years.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) originally planned to place tracks on the local span of the new 11th Street bridge. This would allow future streetcar service to span the river, like that planned in DC's streetcar plan, without an expensive construction project tearing up the just-completed bridge.

That plan fell apart earlier this year, when officials from FTA told DDOT they can't put the tracks in the project, which uses federal funding.

DDOT spokesperson John Lisle confirmed that the tracks will not be in the project, but noted that it is being made "streetcar ready," so that tracks can be added in the future without major changes to the bridge.

Lisle says that DC will save some money, at least $1.5 million, of the $300 million project for not putting in the tracks, but it will cost more to install the tracks later. DDOT doesn't have figures on how much, exactly, it will cost in the future to add tracks.

Adding them later will also force DDOT to close down lanes on the bridge. Right now, the bridge is being built next to the old bridge, allowing all of the traffic that currently uses the bridge to keep doing so during almost all of the construction. Once the new bridge opens and the old one demolished, a track project will require interfering with existing traffic.

So why couldn't DDOT include the tracks? Environmental review rules, federal officials' interpretations of those rules, and DDOT's eagerness to move quickly all mixed together.

DDOT completed its Environmental Impact Statement for the bridge project in 2006, working with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The "Purpose and Need" of the project, an official statement in any EIS that defines its goals, was to deal with traffic congestion stemming from the "missing link" between the bridge and the Anacostia Freeway to the northeast.

A secondary Purpose and Need was to better connect neighborhoods on each side of the river and to the waterfront itself. The freeway acts as a barrier, and getting across on any motorized vehicle requires getting onto a freeway and then off again. Therefore, DDOT decided to separate freeway and local bridges. The EIS mentioned that the local bridge would be designed for "future transit accommodation."

Is including tracks "accommodation" or not? What is "accommodation"? Is it just building the bridge with the structural capacity to handle streetcar vehicles? The actual slabs to underlie tracks? The underground conduit for power and foundations for catenary poles? All of the infrastructure short of actual service? The EIS doesn't specify.

DDOT originally planned to use mostly local money for the project, but switched to make it mainly federal when the stimulus bill passed. Significant funding became available to projects that were ready to obligate their money within 6 months, and the 11th Street Bridge was one of the few large enough projects ready to go.

People familiar with the conversations between DDOT and federal officials, speaking only on condition of anonymity, say that FHWA had signed off on contracts that included mention of the rails, but in early summer, DDOT tried to change the type of rails in order to comply with Buy America requirements that mandate more expensive, domestic rails. FHWA then brought in FTA, which objected to the project not having gone through even more environmental review.

FHWA ultimately appeared willing to give DDOT permission to include the tracks, according to the people familiar with the discussions, but FTA said no. Ironically, the federal government has subsequently offered waivers to Buy America around rails.

The question here is whether FTA had to make the decision they did, or had leeway. And if they had leeway, should they have used it to let the project move forward?

Already, federal regulations impose greater burdens on transit projects. To get funding, transit projects have to meet complex cost-effectiveness criteria while highway projects do not. The FTA acts at times like it's the Federal Make Transit More Difficult Administration. That's not because they're anti-transit, per se, but simply that they are regulating transit, FHWA is regulating roads, and FTA is the stricter parent.

One of the FTA's added hurdles is a requirement that environmental analyses not "prejudice" their decision for any mode. Local agencies have to study many modes, even ones that seem ridiculous on their face, like heavy rail transit for a project that evidently is best as bus or streetcar, or even considering monorail alongside other modes. Highway projects have no comparable requirement; cities don't have to study whether every new road should be carpool-only, for instance.

FTA officials objected that putting tracks on the bridge could predjudice the the Environmental Assessment (EA) underway for streetcar service in Anacostia. Even though DC already has a streetcar segment under construction in part of Anacostia and has made a citywide commitment to streetcars, FTA requires them to pretend none of that exists for the purpose of thinking about Anacostia. In the meantime, they're stopping another transit facility from being part of a project.

There are only 5 bridges connecting DC neighborhoods across the Anacostia, and they're each rebuilt once a generation at most. The EIS already considered the provision of transit service, which in any event has only positive environmental consequences for surrounding neighborhoods compared to single-passenger motor vehicle traffic.

Federal officials have substantial leeway within the regulations to help projects move forward more smoothly or put up obstacles. Sadly, in this case those at FTA seem to have chosen the latter. Instead, perhaps FTA should have been excited to see DC's commitment to transit and willingness to put money, including substantial local money, behind it.

Last year, some said that FTA officials were annoyed with DDOT for moving ahead with tracks on H Street, using local money, without involving FTA. This might have contributed to their rejecting DC for an Urban Circulator grant.

Perhaps DDOT could have worked better with its federal partners, and it probably should have involved FTA sooner in the 11th Street bridge project. But the federal agencies also create a disincentive to work with them when they impose even more rules than NEPA, the environmental act that mandates EISes and EAs, really requires.

The Adrian Fenty and Gabe Klein approach was to move forward as quickly as possible and get things done, sometimes with a minimum of process. In some cases, that led to action that might otherwise have gotten mired in years of debate but which are now remarkably successful, like the cycle tracks or Capital Bikeshare. With this bridge, that posture alienated some federal officials.

DDOT should take more care to follow proper process, and its current leadership is taking pains to rebuild relationships with federal partners even though that likely means slowing progress on streetcar and other projects. That's a good strategy. But federal employees should think about the big picture, too. If they slow down projects whose DOTs try to move fast but maybe come off as a little arrogant along the way, the end result is to hurt transit and the residents of cities who need its service today.

Now, before there can be tracks on the bridge, DDOT will have to undergo an environmental review, then find and program the extra money for the construction. 2020 might be an optimistic timeframe at this point, whereas the money was already in hand to build the tracks this year had FTA chosen to be flexible instead of taking the strictest approach.

Meanwhile, DC expects major development around Saint Elizabeth's and elsewhere in Ward 8. Sadly, our ability to better connect this important and growing area to the rest of the city has just lost a decade, thanks to this decision.


GGW debates: Build Metro above or below ground at Dulles?

On Wednesday, DC Mayor Vince Gray became the latest public figure to enter the fray over the proposed Metro stop at Dulles Airport. Today, our contributors are weighing in.

Photo by XYZ+T on Flickr.

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:

Dan Malouff
Anyone else feeling deja vu? Remember when we had to put the Tysons Corner stations above ground in order to secure federal support for the project?

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.

Jamie Scott
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.

Geoff Hatchard
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.

Alex Block
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.

Eric Hallstrom
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).

Cassidy Mullen
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.

David Cranor
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.

Neil Flanagan
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.

Nolan Treadaway
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.

David Alpert
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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