The co-founder of AOL and longtime resident of the Washington region shares his vision for the future of tech.
A series of embarrassing problems–including loudspeakers not up to code–have again delayed the opening of the first phase of the Silver Line. The snags could soon have financial consequences for the contractor: failing to meet an April 9th deadline to complete the project will rack up $25,000 a day in fines. We get an update as to when we can expect the opening of the Silver Line, which will eventually connect Metro to Dulles Airport.
- Martin Di Caro Transportation Reporter, WAMU
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe Silver Line is making news again. Originally slated to open last year, the project has hit a series of embarrassing snags that have delayed the opening of the first phase again. But soon those delays will have financial consequences for the contractor. If that contractor does not meet a deadline to complete the project by tomorrow they'll begin to rack up $25,000 a day in fines it would appear.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to go through all of this is Martin Di Caro. He's WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter. You too can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Will the opening of the Silver Line change your commute? You can also send us email to email@example.com. Martin, how's it going?
MR. MARTIN DI CAROHello, Kojo. It's good to be back.
NNAMDIRemind us, Martin, of what the Silver Line is and where it will go in Phase 1 and Phase 2.
CAROThe Silver Line, the biggest public transit project in our region, one of the biggest in the country, $6 billion railroad in two phases, about $3 billion apiece. Phase 1 will go through Tyson's Corner. There'll be four Metro stops in Tyson's and then the final stop for Phase 1 will be in Reston. And Reston will have the only and temporary parking lot for these five rail stations.
CAROPhase 2 construction starts soon, probably next year, the major part of the construction. And that's expected to be completed in 2018. That'll eventually get us to Dulles Airport and beyond two stops into Loudoun County. But the focus is on Phase 1, delayed several times. It was supposed to be substantially complete -- I know that's a technical term, but all that means -- and it's very processy just to get people caught up to speed -- this is not a Metro project. This is the first extension of the rail system that Metro has not built.
CAROThis is being built by the Metropolitan Washington Airport's Authority which took on the project from the State of Virginia several years ago to get it done. And the main contractor is Bechtel, which is of course an engineering and construction giant the world over. Once Bechtel submits the project for substantial completion -- and they've done that twice already and it hasn't worked out -- once they do it again the airport's authority has about two weeks to look at it and say, okay you've done your job the right way. Then the project can be handed to Metro which has up to three months to do its own testing and finally open the line to passenger service.
NNAMDISo Bechtel builds it, and Metro operates it.
CAROYes. Bechtel is building it under the oversight of the airport's authority and Metro will operate it and maintain it.
NNAMDIWhat will completion of this first phase do for commuters in this area of our region?
CAROWell, of course it'll be huge and it'll be very important for Tyson's corner. It'll be used for people who may not want to drive back and forth east west, that long route on those highways, they're so congested. But that's the important question here. And I do have some news about a potential completion date for this substantial completion issue.
NNAMDIWell, give us the news now.
CAROYeah, I want to return to the Tyson's Corner issue. That's very important. Okay. So I just spoke to Tom Davis, former Virginia congressman who's a member of the MWAA board of directors and he's the chairman of the Dulles Rail Committee for MWAA. And he says...
NNAMDIMWAA being the Metropolitan Washington Airport's Authority.
CAROYes, that's right. Yes. We can get lost in all these -- I don't know if we call them acronyms or abbreviations.
NNAMDIAcronyms. We're the acronym capital of earth.
CAROThat's right. So Mr. Davis says he expects within the next few days that the contractor will submit the project for substantial completion prior to next week's meeting of the airport's authority on the 16th or shortly thereafter. Now, before anyone starts jumping up and down in celebration, all this means is that he expects and others that they're close to finishing rectifying the many problems, the long punch list of problems that was revealed when Bechtel last submitted the project for completion and had to be rejected.
CAROThey didn't even have certificates of occupancy for the rail stations. So Mr. Davis, telling WAMU 88.5, he expects a submission of substantial completion within the next few days or shortly thereafter. They're close to having an announcement possibly at next week's board meeting of the airport's authority. That then starts the process of approval and eventually Metro gets the project from the airport's authority so they can do their final two to three months of testing and open it to passenger service. Very process oriented, but it's all very important to understand.
NNAMDIAs opposed to people kicking their heels up and celebrating, here's this email we got from Dave in Reston. "I'm appalled at the absence of a public schedule for opening. Each delay has come with less precision for opening to now with no opening date. I have worked on multiple defense projects that were larger, more complex and more expensive and they always have a schedule. Is the airport authority so incompetent they have no schedule, or too embarrassed to make it public?"
CAROI will answer the question in the following manner. Every single story -- news story by myself and anyone else, citing named or unnamed sources with predictions as to when the Silver Line was going to open, including people who know the project, on-the-record statements, every single one has been wrong. If they were right we wouldn't be sitting here talking about when the Silver Line is going to open.
CAROThe original date for substantial completion was in September. So that would've meant, if all had gone well, the Silver Line would've opened in January. That was the original target date. That was wrong. To directly answer that person's question, this is a project of enormous complexity, right, enormous complexity.
NNAMDIWell, he says he worked on projects with more complexity than this.
CAROWell, he may have and I'm certainly not an engineer or an expert on infrastructure.
NNAMDIWell, we're not in a position here to determine what's more complex than -- but go ahead.
CAROYeah, that's true. So any type of project is going to have issues. There are going to be change orders. There's going to be disputes over money. He is right to question how a contractor, Bechtel and all of its subcontractors including Alstom Signaling, and with all the layers of oversight that we've reported on here at WAMU, a project could've been submitted last month without certificates or occupancy for the rail stations.
CARONow that happened because state inspectors in Virginia did not approve of certain speakers, among other issues that were installed.
NNAMDII was about to say…
NNAMDI…now it comes down to loudspeakers.
NNAMDICan you talk about how this multi-billion dollar project could hit a snag over things like loudspeakers?
CAROIn a way, that's good. I mean, the major infrastructure, the elevated tracks, the concrete, this is not another Silver Spring Transit Center. The bulk of the project is done, it looks great. It's going to be fantastic. But yeah, speakers. Right? So for the original intent, the speakers were supposed to be used for public address.
CAROAt some point in the last six months, and we're not sure who, it was either the Airports Authority or the contractor decided to make a change and wanted to incorporate those speakers into a fire alarm system, an advanced fire alarm system, but they were not up to code for that. So the inspector said, "Sorry. Got to tear these out, install the new ones, test them and then we'll approve them." So that's just a time-consuming process. It's not technically difficult, but it's a time-consuming process.
NNAMDIWell, we've been saying all day long that this delays -- these delays could have financial consequences and that there's a big…
NNAMDI…deadline tomorrow for the Silver Line Project contractors. Can you talk about that? Is there still a big deadline?
CAROWell, April 9th is the date -- That's tomorrow, as you correctly point out -- that under the terms of the contract the Airports Authority can begin fining the contractor $25,000 per day if the project is not complete. We know the project is not complete. However, all sides, the Airports Authority, the contractor, Bechtel, and Metro -- they've been privy and present for all these meetings -- have been working pretty much every day, multiple meetings a day, multiple hour-long meetings to resolve the problems.
CAROAnd from what I've been told and what Mr. Davis told me earlier before I came on the show. Their focus right now is not on fines. So it's not as if midnight tomorrow comes and the Airports Authority notifies Bechtel. You will be fined $25,000 for this first day. This is how the project works, right.
NNAMDIYou know what most people are saying? If this was me and I was a contractor building a house or anything else, those fines would kick in immediately. How come they don't kick in for big corporations the same way they kick in for me?
CAROWell, this is -- not to get lost in the arcane. I'll make this as brief as I can, but it is very important to understand. So the project's not done. The Airport's Authority is withholding -- I don't want to say withholding -- retaining tens of million dollars in payments. Just like when I hire Kojo Nnamdi Roof Repair to come to my house and you took…
NNAMDII'm working on it.
CAROYeah, you took seven months and finally when you finished that one little patch on the roof, I wrote the check and said thank you very much. When Bechtel is finally done with the project -- and even after substantial completion, there'll still be a long punch list of items that has to be completed -- the Airports Authority will pay the contractor for finishing the project. At that point, they will say, okay, we will pay you this amount minus this month in liquidated damages -- it's not really fines -- liquidated damages for X many days that you were late.
CAROBechtel, of course they're doing all their documentation. They have their argument. They will say that the April 9th date is subject to change because you changed the scope of the work, there were many change orders, of course a massive project like this, it's not going to go straight from the blueprints right to -- in reality. So there are a lot of change orders and differences from the original idea design to now.
CAROThey will make their argument that no, actually, based on all the extra work that you gave us outside the original scope, we were on time with the project. That will be sorted out later on and will not be, at least for now, an impediment to finishing the Silver Line.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break, but when we come back we'll be talking with Martin Di Caro, WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter about what all of these delays are going to be meaning for development around the Silver Line, particularly around Tysons Corner. So if you have questions about that, give us a call, 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're getting a Silver Line update, if you will, from Martin Di Caro, WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter. If you have questions or comments about the Silver Line, call us at 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, email to email@example.com or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Martin, what have these ongoing delays meant for development around the Silver Line, particularly Tysons Corner?
CAROYou know, Kojo, I will answer your question very happily in a moment. I just want to digress for a second. You mentioned Silver Line update…
CARO…such as it is. A fellow by the name of Mike Hoff (sp?) created a website called "Is the Silver Line open yet?" When you click on it, it opens up to a word, "No." That's it. That's the whole website. No. So, yes. We just came off our discussion about when the Silver Line is open. Whether they reach substantial completion next week or the week after, this is not going…
NNAMDIThe website doesn't include substantial completion…
CAROYes. That's right.
NNAMDI…or maybe or anything like that.
CAROThe Silver Line is coming. This is not going to be dragging on for years and years. It's coming. Understandably though, to your question, real estate owners and developers in Tysons Corner are of course getting impatient. They're marketing is on hold. They have built high-rise apartment buildings and office buildings and the restaurants and how can they get anyone to come out and check out all this stuff without the Silver Line?
CAROSo how is this affecting things? Well, right now it's just simply causing delays. And it's causing delays in marketing and for real estate developers who own property around the four stations in Tysons Corner who have not yet begun to build. They are waiting to see what the absorption rates are for the first completed high rises before they go ahead and start construction.
CARONow, those absorption rates are zero at the moment, because, you know, of course they have some commitments from people and there are tenants moving there. I don't mean to say no one's going there. But Tysons Corner has a 16 percent vacancy rate. And that's pretty high. So until the Silver Line opens and we can see how those first few high rises around the Tysons Corner's stations fair, the rest of the construction is unlikely to begin.
CAROSo of course time is money. And the transformation of Tysons Corner is on hold until the Silver Line begins. The Silver Line is not simply a train that we're talking about and the technicalities of finishing it and the drama with Bechtel and the Airports Authority, it is being looked as a model. First of all, for public transit, right. This is an enormous investment. The federal government gave it about a billion dollars.
CAROIt's going to change the face of our region. The success of the Silver Line will mean a lot for the government's willingness to invest in public transit down the road. Secondly, Tysons Corner, looked as a model for the transformation of suburbs into cities. Twenty-thousand people live in Tysons Corner now. Fairfax County would like to have 100,000 people living there in the next 35 years. And 200,000 people working there. That will happen only if the Silver Line is successful.
CARONow, there's the issue of commuting. The Silver Line's estimated ridership at start of service combined for the four stations in Tysons is about 16,000 boardings a day. That is not going to reduce traffic congestion, but as years go by and decades go by and as the population of the region grows, we will have the option for individuals to stay off the highways and take the train instead. But right off the bat it's not going to reduce traffic congestion. That's not what this project's about. The project's about economic development.
NNAMDIHere's Sam, in Frederick, Md. Sam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMThank you, Kojo. Yeah, I just came back from a visit to New Delhi, India, where they have fashioned the metro system exactly like D.C.'s. They have built three phases, all built ahead of time. And I know in this region they have studied the system for 25 years. And yet, it has taken them more than five years to build one. I think the delay is unacceptable. The contractor should be penalized. Why the heck he didn't raise objections to the change orders and why wasn't it disclosed ahead of time?
NNAMDISam, if Martin Di Caro were to tell you that he has reason to believe that this Silver Line could be open as early as July 4th, would that make any difference in your opinion?
NNAMDIWell, I'll have him tell it to you anyway. Martin?
CAROWell, July 4th, that's a guess. But, you know, once the project is approved -- and that should be happening shortly -- then Metro has two to three months, probably closer to three months to complete its own testing and open the line to passenger service. So I guess I understand the caller's frustration. Everyone is frustrated. And people are frustrated that they can't get a direct answer out of the Airports Authority as to a date.
CAROBut they've been burned so many times estimating the start -- I should say estimating the project completion. And then of course the passenger service date is set by Metro. These organizations don't want to throw dates out there anymore because they've been burned too many times and it sets unrealistic expectations for the public. It's a big project. Of course, mistakes have been made. Who pays for that will be decided later on, possibly in court. But right now everyone's focus is simply getting this project finished.
NNAMDIAnd I need for you to reiterate you had the conversation with Tom Davis today, former Virginia Republican congressman. He's a member of the MWAA, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. You said that the MWAA has to certify the project as complete, before Metro takes over.
NNAMDIMetro then takes over and then is there a time we can realistically think we can expect to see trains on the tracks? That's why the July 4th is a best and educated guess?
CAROGood timing for your question. I asked Metro's General Manager, Richard Sarles, after a Metro board meeting yesterday about this issue of how long it will take Metro to open the line when they -- once they get the project. Of course, they haven't gotten the project yet. So Metro's been doing some of their own observation and their own testing, concurrently, with the Airports Authority and the contractors. But there's only so much they can do until they get the project.
CAROThey have to train their workforce, they have to train their emergency response teams, they have to make sure the trains are working right and they don't -- they haven't been handed a lemon from the Airports Authority. And I don't think that's going to happen. And Mr. Sarles said, you know, there's this possibility that maybe they could shave a month off of their wrap-up time, but he didn't want to go there.
CAROHe is stating -- and categorically states -- we have up to three months, 90 days, to open the rail line. So once Metro gets the project, look at a calendar, add 90 days and that is a rough estimate of when the Silver Line might open. I wish I could be more precise, but the people who are in charge of the project can't be either.
NNAMDISam, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Frank, in Fairfax, Va. Frank, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANKYes. Thank you for responding.
FRANKThe past year I made a study, a politic study (unintelligible)…
NNAMDIFrank, you're breaking up on us. I'm going to put you on hold. Put yourself in a secure location and in a couple of minutes we'll get back with you because I know Frank wants to talk about a study of the Big Dig and how it compares with projects like this. But while we're waiting for Frank to find himself in a stable situation, Martin, Phase 2. Much anticipated by many Washingtonians. When can people expect to take the Silver Line all the way to Dulles Airport?
CAROWow, so I have to now -- unable to tell you when Phase 1 is going to open, to -- well, is 2018 good enough? That's the projected date for service to Dulles, 2018.
NNAMDIOkay. And after we…
CARO(unintelligible) see if we get it right.
NNAMDI…account for delays and we account for who knows. But let's see if Frank has found himself in a more secure location at this point. Frank, you're on the air, Frank. Go ahead, please. Frank, are you there? Let me see, maybe it's my fault. Frank, are you there? No, Frank's no longer there. Frank dropped off. Martin, I'd like to talk briefly about legislation…
NNAMDI…that Washington, D.C.'s Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh is introducing today, an overhaul of D.C.'s transportation agencies. Can you talk about what she's proposing?
CAROYes. And thank you for bringing this up. This is a very interesting, very important. Mary Cheh unhappy, as many people are, with the current performance of the five transportation agencies in D.C., which include the District Department of Transportation, Public Works, does parking tickets. We have the D.C. Taxi Cab Commission that regulates the cabs. Councilmember Cheh wants to abolish the Taxi Cab Commission and give its functions to two different agencies.
CAROThe DMV will handle the licensing and registering of cabs. Regulation of cabs would go to a new agency entirely, the District Transit Authority, which would look at multi-modal planning and take all the public transit responsibilities away from the District Department of Transportation. DDOT would be broken up under her plan. DDOT would be left with doing roads and bridges and paving and pot holes and such. And this is all part of an effort to more crisply manage and regulate and make policy for transportation in the District.
NNAMDIShe cites the changing transportation landscape.
NNAMDIMeaning exactly what?
CAROAll right. So 40 percent, according to the U.S. census, 40 percent of households in D.C. are car-free, many more are car light. And we have many new modes of transportation now that weren't around five, six, seven, eight years ago. WE have the D.C. circulator. We have Bike Share. We have a streetcar coming. And she sees an increasing number of residents who are planning their everyday lives around multi modalism. She wants to have an agency, the District Transit Authority, that is creating policy and regulating the modes for those people. So…
NNAMDIAnd given this winter's snow storm, she should probably also include sleds and skis, but she says that DDOT is overwhelmed with many more areas to manage than in the past.
CAROWhen I met Councilmember Cheh yesterday she said something close to 20, I think, employees at DDOT handling the massive project like the streetcar. She points to the agency's record of delivering projects on time. It's not great. Metropolitan Branch Trail is taking forever. The M Street Cycle Track, I'm going to have a report on that tomorrow morning. That looks like it's going to be done in a couple of weeks. That was supposed to be done a year ago.
CAROObviously the streetcar several months late. So she believes that by creating new bureaucracies to replace the current ones we can get better results. We'll see. It's going to be a long process before that ever becomes law.
NNAMDIWell, Claire, in Falls Church, Va., is anticipating another problem that Mary Cheh may want to consider. Claire, you're on the air. We only have about a minute left. Go ahead, please.
CLAIREOkay, thanks. My concern is the overwhelm that's going to happen when all of these new people pour onto the Silver Line and try and come downtown, especially during the rush hour because it just seems like we're at capacity now. And I wonder what's going on with the plans for the downtown, the renovations, I heard a while back.
CARODowntown, meaning rail expansion or…
CLAIREI don't know. I saw a plan for tunnels and (unintelligible)…
CAROOh, that's years and years off, yeah.
CLAIRESo what's the anticipation? Where are all these new people -- so it's really going to have people push in like Toyota, I mean, it's in Tokyo.
CAROWell, you raise an excellent point. The region's population's growing. We want everyone to, you know, be on trains and bikes and circulator busses. Metro is packed now. It needs more money, a lot more money to expand to 100 percent eight-car trains by 2015. Currently -- I don't know, do I have time, 20 seconds, Kojo? Do I have 20 seconds?
NNAMDITwenty seconds is all you have.
CAROOkay. I'll make it real quick. Currently, the funding to replace all the 1,000 series and 4,000 series rail cars is in place, but to expand the rail fleet to 100 percent eight-car trains during rush hour by 2025, Metro does not have secured funding for that.
NNAMDIAnd I have just been informed that the director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, Terry Bellamy is leaving.
CAROYes. He's retiring, I've been told.
NNAMDIMartin Di Caro. He knows it all. He is WAMU 88.5's…
CAROWell, thank you, Kojo.
CAROI'm glad someone thinks so.
NNAMDIIn other words, he gets around. Martin, thank you so much for joining us.
CAROThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
A new Washington Post poll found that 9 in 10 Native Americans aren't offended by the Washington football team's name. We talk about the implications for the team, fans and both the local and Native communities.
D.C.’s self-government moves get slapped down in Congress and court. Montgomery County lawmakers put their money where their mouth is on school spending. And Fairfax County disciplines a fire official over inappropriate social media posts.
Howard University has long been among the nation's best-known historically black universities. We talk with the university's president, Wayne Frederick, about the way forward for the D.C. institution.