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Transit


Let's stand by the Silver Line

Sharon Bulova chairs the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

In light of the safety and maintenance issues that Metro is now addressing with SafeTrack, some members of the media have said that instead of building the Silver Line, WMATA should have fixed the rest of the system. As one of the leaders that helped make the Silver Line happen, I'd like to respond.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

Expansion and maintenance are not mutually exclusive when you do them both responsibly, and it is important to note that WMATA did not build or pay for the Silver Line extension. The Silver Line was financed outside of the WMATA budget, and funding to build the extension could not have been used instead for Metro maintenance.

Financing for construction of the Silver Line comes from multiple sources, including special tax districts in Fairfax County paid by commercial and industrial landowners along the Dulles corridor, motorists using the Dulles Toll Road, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the federal government, Loudoun County and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The Silver Line took decades of planning and spanned numerous elected officials and leaders. The project almost died a few times, and the 2014 grand opening was a tremendous feat.
This extension of Metro has served as a major underpinning of economic growth and redevelopment in Tysons, spurring over 100 million square feet of new approved development within a half-mile of the new stations. In terms of growth in the commercial tax base, Tysons increased by a rate of 3.1% in FY 2016 and 10.8% in FY 2017.

By 2050, Fairfax County plans to attract 100,000 residents and 200,000 jobs to Tysons. Riders using the Silver Line from Phase I (Tysons/Reston) and Phase II (Dulles Airport and beyond) will have access to a one-seat ride to downtown DC and a safe and convenient connection to the rest of the region. This increase in connectivity and access to Metro is why ensuring the safety and reliability of the systen is critical to our region's success.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

Past WMATA leaders failed to make safety the top priority and neglected to do major maintenance as well. That led to tragedy and, eventually, the SafeTrack maintenance plan we see today. SafeTrack is impacting all Metro riders this year, but the heavy dose of maintenance medicine will shore up the entire system.

Paul Wiedefeld is focused on getting Metro back on its feet and transforming WMATA's culture into one that is safety-first. I believe this generation will be known for repairing, revitalizing, reinvesting, and reinvigorating the infrastructure that past generations built. While SafeTrack is placing a temporary burden on commuters, it's necessary and in many cases is being completed ahead of schedule. I believe this bodes well for WMATA's future.

I will be working with my regional counterparts through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Greater Washington Board of Trade to identify dedicated funding for WMATA. We must prepare for the future and we must do so safely, responsibly, and consistently. Our regional economy depends on Metro's success.

Transit


The West Falls Church station got far less use after the Silver Line opened

When the Silver Line opened in July of 2014, the West Falls Church Metro station took a huge ridership hit. But overall, the Silver Line meant more people riding Metro.


Graph by the author. Click for a larger version.

The chart above is based on the ridership data released by Metro in March. The stations noted here are West Falls Church and the five new Silver Line stations, with data coming from AM peak entries during typical weekdays.

In the span of two months, from a peak in June 2014 to a low in August 2014, West Falls Church station saw its average ridership drop by almost 70% with the opening of the Silver Line! While this appears to be bad news for West Falls Church and Metro, that isn't the case if you look at all six stations.

It looks like when the Silver Line opened, West Falls Church riders immediately switched to stations closer to their homes. That, or rather than driving to West Falls Church, they started driving to Wiehle, the only new station with parking (it could be a combination of both, of course).

Changes to bus routes in the corridor probably had a lot to do with the drop in entries at West Falls. When the Silver Line opened, 62 bus routes got modifications. 11 were eliminated altogether, and major feeder routes operated by Fairfax Connector, Loundon County, and Washington Flyer moved their terminus from West Falls to Wiehle Avenue.

Overall, the Silver Line and the bus service changes that accompanied it attracted new riders to Metro. This is evidenced in the the uptick in the grand total entries among these six stations. It's likely that a lot of new riders are commuters from Fairfax and Loudoun County, where Metro was previously unaccessible.

A goal of public transit is to offer people better access to transportation. The opening of the Silver Line made travel for existing Metro customers easier by putting stations closer to their homes, and also attracted new riders by offering an alternative to driving and carpooling.

Transit


Changes in Metro ridership, in five charts

Between 2011 and 2015, the average number of riders that entered a Metro station dropped from 8,500 per station to 7,400. During the same time, the only Metro station to see a big jump in ridership was NoMa-Gallaudet. I graphed these numbers, and more, after Metro recently released five years' worth of data.


Ridership at Union Station in 2011 vs 2015. All graphics by the author.

Comparing ridership from 2011 to 2015, I see five main ways to categorize changes at individual stations:

  1. No change, or only a subtle change in ridership
  2. Pronounced decline in ridership
  3. Pronounced increase in ridership
  4. Silver Line-related ridership changes
  5. Seasonal or weather-related ridership changes
In order to help illustrate these patterns, I graphed the data and pulled out some of the most interesting stations. For all plots below, monthly ridership in 2011 is shown as red squares, and ridership for 2015 as blue crosses.

1. No change, or only a subtle change in ridership


Average weekday ridership at Branch Avenue, Glenmont, and Largo Town Center stations in 2011 vs 2015.

Many of the stations in the system appeared to show either no decrease in ridership, or only a slight one. Around 55-60 stations fit into this category, or around 60 percent of the Metrorail system.

2. Pronounced decline in ridership


Average weekday ridership at Metro Center, L'Enfant Plaza, and Gallery Place-Chinatown stations in 2011 vs 2015.

The combined effect of all the subtle declines near the edges gets sharper when you look at bigger drop offs at the system's core stations, including Metro Center, L'Enfant Plaza, and Gallery Place. In total, around 20 of the 91 total Metro stations fit into this category.


Average weekday ridership at Pentagon, Pentagon City, and Crystal City stations in 2011 vs 2015.

All stations in south Arlington saw declines in ridership. What is it about that area that has changed in the last four years? Perhaps this is an area that WMATA should focus efforts to boost ridership? Or perhaps success of the Metroway bus service between Alexandria and Arlington has shifted passengers away from the rail system?

3. Pronounced increase in ridership


Average weekday ridership at NoMa - Gallaudet University station in 2011 vs 2015.

The only station to see substantial increases in ridership over this time period was NoMa. The station saw ridership increase from an average of 7,400 riders per weekday to over 9,000/weekday over the period of this data, an increase of over 20 percent. This is not surprising given the amount of development that has occurred in this area around the station.

In this context, a "substantial increase" in ridership is based on an increase of 1,000 average weekday riders over the course of the entire year of data. This helps show that the ridership change isn't temporary or a short seasonal change, but one that will affect the station long-term.

4. Silver Line related ridership changes


Average weekday ridership at West Falls Church, Vienna, and Wiehle-Reston East stations in 2011 vs 2015.

The opening of the Silver Line, as you might guess, greatly impacted the end of the Orange Line stations. You can see Wiehle picking up some of those declines.

Average weekday ridership at West Falls Church declined by almost 75 percent when the Silver Line opened. This shift is due in part to people using the five new stations that opened, as well as the bus route changes that shifted many away from departing/arriving West Falls Church. The five new Silver Line stations carried an average weekday ridership of just under 3,000 people across all of 2015.

5. Seasonal or temporal related ridership changes


Average weekday ridership at Navy Yard-Ballpark, Smithsonian, and Arlington Cemetery stations in 2011 vs 2015.

You can always tell when it's baseball season by looking at ridership at Navy Yard-Ballpark station. 2015 was a better season for the Nats than 2011, which might be why the former had higher ridership.

Smithsonian station always shows when it's cherry blossom time (noted by the sharp increase in average ridership in April), tourist season (increased ridership during the summer months), and the 4th of July (sharp increase in average ridership for the month of July). Arlington Cemetery similarly shows average ridership increases over the summer when the weather is nice, and decreases to under 400 average riders per weekday during the cold season (also when the station closes earlier), although to a lesser extent.

The stations selected are only representatives from across the whole system. You can find plots showing the entire system and other more granular data here. What else have you found in the data that's interesting?

Roads


A new bridge over the Dulles Toll Road will mean more Metro access and development in Reston

Soon, Reston is going to have another bridge that crosses over the Dulles Toll Road. Called the Soapstone Connector, the bridge will make it easier to get to the Wiehle Metro station, and will pave the way for new mixed-use developments nearby.


Image from Google Maps.

In 2008, Reston and Fairfax County decided there would need to be more ways to access the future station than those that currently exist. The plan is to extend Soapstone Drive across the Toll Road, linking two popular commuter routes: Sunrise Valley Drive and Sunset Hills Road.

Fairfax's transportation department did a feasibility study in 2012, and it's currently collecting data and considering options for exactly how and where they'll build the bridge. A final decision on the design isn't expected until an environmental assessment is finished this time next year, and estimates are that construction could start as early as 2018 depending on funding and other factors.


A Fairfax County DOT project information board used at the Monday 26th feedback meeting. Photo by the author.

A bridge will make Metro more accessible, which will attract development

According to Fairfax's transportation department, the project's purpose is to provide more options for multiple types of transportation to travel north and south around Wiehle Avenue, which should cut Wiehle's and Reston Parkway's congestion.

One specific goal is to make it easy for buses to travel across the Toll Road and to the Wiehle-Reston Metro station without having to travel on Wiehle. The county also hopes to make it easier and safer for people to walk or bike to the Metro station.

A number of developments, both current and planned for the future, benefit from there being a new way to cross over the Toll Road and get to Metro.

On the Sunrise Valley side of the Toll Road, there is the Reston National Golf Course and the association enclave. The golf course owners want to redevelop all or a portion of their land. The developing "Reston Heights" complex is also a short distance to the west.

On the Sunset Hills side, the Soapstone Connector bridge will provide additional transportation options for the burgeoning multi-use development, Reston Station.

The new road may also provide easier access to the Plaza America shopping center to the west. In the future, perhaps there could be a connection to the W&OD bike trail on the other side of Sunset Hills.

Residents have concerns about traffic and bike trails

Fairfax held a public information meeting on the project on Monday night. Attendees voiced concerns about the project's impact on an increasingly busy road network. One gentleman called the project a "necessary enhancement," but also said he was worried the studies did not consider the effect on the surrounding neighborhoods.

A FCDOT contractor replied that community comments would steer the county's approach to mitigating these indirect impacts.

Many voiced worries about traffic as well, asking why the bridge would only have three vehicle lanes. There was also mention of 22,000 planned residential units being built near the area.


A Fairfax County DOT project information board used at the Monday 26th feedback meeting. Photo by the author.

A FCDOT representative informed the group that there is a current Reston Network Analysis underway to "evaluate the conceptual grids of streets and road elements at gateways to the Reston Transit Station Areas."

One Restonian wondered the same thing I'm wondering: will there be any connection to the W&OD trail?

Unfortunately, this project will not be developing another access point to the trail across Sunset Hills Road. However, there is a new crosswalk at the intersection of Metro Center Drive, Sunset Hills, and Issac Newton Square.

Citizens may submit their comments and questions regarding this phase of the project to Audra K. Bandy at audra.bandy@fairfaxcounty.gov through November 6th.

Transit


Orange and Silver line trains are about to get slower

Earlier this week, a fire damaged a Metro power station near Stadium Armory Metro station. Orange and Silver Line trains are going to run less frequently for around the next six months so WMATA can make repairs.


Photo by Photographer on Flickr.

To repair a power substation taken offline after the fire, WMATA is planning to increase the time between Orange and Silver line trains during rush hour service from six to eight minutes. This means your trip will take longer, and the train will hold at stations more. WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel said the change started this morning.

WMATA is doing its repairs in three parts. First, slow restrictions are in place around Stadium Armory, capping train travel in the affected area to under 40 miles per hour.

Second, WMATA is limiting how quickly train operators can accelerate in the affected area. Trains draw the most power when they first start to move, so lowering the acceleration rate helps to decrease the load on WMATA's power system.

The third part will affect customers the most: trains will only service the Orange and Silver lines every eight minutes each during morning and evening rush hours. Blue line service with 12 minute headways is not affected by the change.

These actions mean that your trips will take longer and trains will increase the time they spend waiting in stations. Increasing the two lines' headways will decrease the number of trains through Stadium Armory to 20 trains per hour from about 23.5 to help decrease train delays.

The goal of the decrease in service is to limit how long trains wait to pass through the Stadium Armory area. If train flow is not handled well, riders throughout the lines could see longer waits as trains spread out or start to bunch.

Only one transformer caught fire on Monday, but the other two three-megawatt transformers were declared a complete loss as well. WMATA may need to reallocate transformers from other repair jobs if they have any, and likely also needs to order more which takes time.

WMATA expects to publish a plan of action for returning the power substation to service sometime today.

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