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Metro is scheduled to begin rail service this week on its new Silver Line, a milestone in one of the largest public infrastructure projects in the country. But the new line is already disrupting commuting patterns for passengers elsewhere in the system. Kojo chats with WAMU 88.5 transportation reporter Martin Di Caro about what the Silver Line’s opening will mean for the riders who use it, the neighborhoods near its stops and passengers who use Metro’s other lines.
- Martin Di Caro Transportation Reporter, WAMU
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later on the broadcast, "Rogue Elephant." Veteran journalist Simon Denyer explores the future of India's complicated and often unruly democracy. But, first, the future is now for Metro's Silver Line. If all goes according to plan, passengers will be hopping on a new rail line in the Washington region this weekend for the very first time. The first phase of (word?) Silver Line stretches into Northern Virginia through Tyson's Corner.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd riders will eventually be able to travel into Loudoun County past Dulles Airport. But the new rail line is already disrupting commuting routines for other riders in the system. Joining us to explore what the Silver Line's opening means for all Metro riders and for the neighborhoods along the route is Martin Di Caro, transportation reporter for WAMU 88.5. How's it going, Martin?
MR. MARTIN DICAROWell, Kojo. First of all, it's great to be back here to chat with you again. It's super busy and really exciting, you know? Some perspective here, we've been talking about Dulles Rail for how many decades?
NNAMDIIt's finally happening.
DICAROThat's right. Construction began in 2009 -- March 2009, five years later, we finally are now on the precipice.
NNAMDIIt's finally here, for those who weren't following this as closely during the past year. What held up the process for so long? And what needs to happen for the scheduled opening to actually take place this weekend?
DICAROWell, they have -- all systems are go, to use the words of Metro's officials yesterday on their weekly conference call. Well, to recap all the heartache and the headaches of the past year would take a while. Well, we all know that the Silver Line was supposed to open at the end of last year or the very beginning of this year. But there were numerous problems with the contractor's work and the oversight -- potential oversight issues at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
DICAROAll that has been worked out to Metro's satisfaction, where they now can open the Silver Line this Saturday at noon, its maiden voyage starting at the Wiehle-Reston East Station, the western-most fifth station of the five that will be opening for the first phase of the Silver Line. Phase two to Dulles Airport is 2018. So we're finally here. There still will be work done on issues -- temporary fixes -- the replacement of remote terminal units, these wayside computers that communicate with Metro's central command or central control.
DICAROThere will be work done on some temporary fixes on the tracks. That will continue for the next year or so while service begins and they get permanent fixes on those technical aspects.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Martin Dicaro about the Silver Line, give us a call at 800-433-8850. How will the opening of this line affect your commuting routines? Are you a Blue Line rider? Has the Silver Line already affected your life? How so? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Martin, what kind of glitches is Metro looking for running their test this week?
DICAROWell, you know, I suspect this is going to be pretty glitch-free. This week of...
NNAMDIYou'll have ridden, I presume.
DICAROActually I, no one is allowed on the simulated trains.
NNAMDIOh, not yet?
DICAROYeah. So we've known since...
NNAMDINot even you?
DICARONo, not even you. Well, I might be the last one. We've known since early June, when the president of the local transit union, Jackie Jeter, told WAMU 88.5 exclusively that the simulated service would begin July 20. So we've known for some time that Metro has been looking, despite all the suspense about the starting day, Metro has been targeting late July for quite a while. They just needed to have everything happen that needed to have happen with the contractor. And some of those certificates of occupancy for the Tyson's Corner rail stations are still pending but they're expected to happen before Saturday.
DICAROSo the simulated service to basically running Silver Line trains without passengers to allow the station managers and the train operators to familiarize themselves with the route before passenger service begins Saturday at noon. And of course then the first rush hour train will be leaving Monday morning. So they have the weekend to work out whatever else is left to work out.
NNAMDIAny chance at all that this schedule could get knocked off track and that passenger service will be delayed once again?
DICAROWell, never say never. But as of now, Metro's fully confident that they will launch on Saturday. But in the meantime, we have other issues with the Blue Line. You talked about glitches, yes.
NNAMDIWhat conversations have you had with the people who live and work around the Silver Line stops that are scheduled to open this weekend. Are people optimistic about how rail service will affect their businesses or their commutes by rail or by car? Are they nervous?
DICAROI don't think people are nervous. It's going to be a ramping-up period. Let's talk about what you just raised there, as far as people who live around the station stops. Right now...
NNAMDIYeah. Then we'll get to the Blue Line.
DICAROYeah, we'll get to the Blue Line later. Yeah, you know, Blue Line headaches for the last 48 hours. We'll give people a temporary respite. 17,000 people live in Tyson's Corner. 100,000 people work there on a given week day. All right? There are four stops in Tyson's. There will be one temporary parking lot, no permanent parking lots, at the Tyson's Corner stations. So Fairfax County has a vision for Tyson's Corner. In the next 25 to 30 years, there will be 200,000 people working there and 100,000 people living there. That's going to take some time. There's going to be a ramp-up period. We're talking about millions of square feet of redevelopment.
DICAROTyson's Corner is the model across the country for the urbanization of the suburbs. It's one of the largest suburban redevelopment projects in the country, the largest in our region since Arlington. So that's going to take some time. So the federal ridership estimate for those four station stops in Tyson's, total daily boardings, 16,000. Total daily boardings for the Reston Station, this is again the federal estimate that was in the Environmental Impact Statement, 8,000. So five Silver Line stations, total daily boardings estimated at 24,000 per day one year after the Silver Line opens.
DICAROSo that gives you an idea of how long it's going to take to get really robust ridership on the five Silver Line stops.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What do you see as at stake with the opening of Metro's Silver Line? Are you a Blue Line rider? Has the Silver Line already affected your life? How so? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Talk about changes to the Blue Line.
DICAROOkay. Are you ready for the phone lines?
DICAROOkay, here we go. So, one last note though about those five Silver Line stops. It's going to have little to no impact on traffic congestion. You know, it's commonly said that this is going to be a remedy or a possible solution to traffic congestion. We're talking about 24,000 daily boardings, you know, a year out from Saturday. That's going to, you know, that's not a game changer in traffic congestion. We can talk about more of that in the hour.
DICAROSo the Blue Line. This comes down to the Rosslyn Tunnel. Metro can only fit 26 trains an hour, each direction, through the Rosslyn Tunnel. That's one train every 135 seconds. And of course you have to account for the train stopping, the doors opening and hopefully working, people getting out of the train and boarding the train and then starting up the train again. So 100, I'm sorry, 26 trains per hour -- now has to have the Orange Line, the Blue Line and the Silver Line. To make room for all three lines, Metro had to cut two Blue Line trains and make them Yellow Line trains.
DICAROSo for people who must take the Blue Line, meaning they cannot take the bus or take the Yellow Line instead to the eastern side of downtown -- say, if you're traveling in the morning from any station, Pentagon south in Virginia, on the Blue Line north to D.C., you're going to, say, Foggy Bottom, you pretty much have to take the Blue Line -- your commute is going to get longer. Metro is telling everyone else on the Blue Line, well, say you're going to the eastern side of downtown, transfer at L'Enfant Plaza to the Yellow Line. I'm sorry, take the Yellow Line to L'Enfant and then transfer there to one of the three trains that are available on that platform.
NNAMDIYou were in Rosslyn for rush hour yesterday?
DICAROYeah, that was not pretty.
NNAMDIYou live-tweeted your adventures. What did the riders you spoke with tell you about whether they're willing to consider the other options Metro says are available to them -- for them that would make their commute smoother?
DICAROThey say, no. Well, for people who must take the Blue Line, and I say must, not meaning absolutely, you know, no other -- you can always take a cab, I suppose, home. But that's expensive. For folks who, you know, basically their best ride is still the Blue Line, transferring doesn't make sense, they're basically stuck. So say you come down -- yesterday was awful. I was down on the platform for 45 minutes. Every single Orange Line train that comes through, packed to the doors. Blue Line train shows up once every 12 minutes. If it's a six-car train, packed to the doors.
DICAROAn eight-car train showed up -- and Metro is adding more eight-car trains to the Blue Line mix -- totally packed. But then when the last car passed through the station on its way out, almost totally empty. So if you walked to the end of the platform you could save 12 minutes of your life not having to wait for another Blue Line train. However, if you walked to the end of the platform and the next train is a six-car train, it will pass you. And you have to then scramble back up to the beginning of the -- the middle of the platform. You know, it's not good. You asked the question, what can people do?
DICAROWell, they can tolerate it for a while and then possibly stop taking the Blue Line. I spoke to one fellow yesterday who said, when his lease is up, he's moving away from the Blue Line. It's a serious problem. Blue Line riders are really angry about this because they lost service when Metro went to Rush Plus.
NNAMDII was about to ask about them. How do these train patterns going into effect now build off of what Metro put in place a few years ago with the so-called Rush Plus system? Blue Line riders said they were given the shaft then.
DICAROYes, they lost trains to the Yellow Line during rush hour. Now they're losing more trains. So you have one train every 12 minutes during rush hour. Kojo, let's say you're entering the system at Rosslyn. You've worked a long, hard day. Oh, you always work a long, hard day. But you've just...
NNAMDINot really. But go ahead.
DICAROYou've got sweat pouring off your brow, it's 100 degrees, it's humid out...
NNAMDIYou've got me mistaken for somebody else.
DICAROThat's right. Yeah, I -- you know, as a journalist, my keen observational skills failed me there. So you go down the escalator. You're hot and sweaty, it's humid. A Blue Line train has just left. All right, so you have to wait 10 minutes. The next Blue Line train shows up, you can't get on it. That did happen yesterday. There was just no room for people on the train. It's like 5:15 in the afternoon. Now you have to wait 12 more minutes. So you've already waited 22 minutes for a Blue Line train, say from Rosslyn down to Pentagon or Crystal City, whatever it might be. You're frustrated. You're sick of this. You're -- 22 minutes, you want to be home with your family.
DICAROThat is the attitude of folks, and justifiable on the Blue Line, who don't have options to transfer or take the Yellow Line.
NNAMDIWell, who is therefore going to be very happy with the Silver Line?
DICAROOnly fools try to predict the future. Well, if -- let's just say you live out in Fairfax County and you do drive into D.C. every day. The Silver Line does provide you the option of taking the train in. So you'll park at Reston. Reston has a 2,200-car -- or I should say a 2,200-space parking lot that goes underground at Wiehle Avenue. You will pay $4.85 a day to park. And then if you were traveling into downtown D.C. during rush hour and back out to Wiehle Avenue during rush hour, your total round-trip commute, including parking, will be $16.65.
DICAROThere will also be robust bus service. The Fairfax connector has enhanced and added many routes to bring people to Wiehle Avenue. So they can take the bus to the train and then the train to their jobs. So those folks, yes, if you're tire of driving and you want to take transit, you will be happy, as long as you can afford that cost. That's a lot of money, $16.65 a day, just to use the example of somebody who is traveling all the way into downtown D.C. from Reston.
NNAMDIWhat should we know about parking at Tyson's Corner?
DICAROAh, this is a hot topic, okay? So no permanent parking lots at the four stations in Tyson's Corner. Okay, this makes sense for a few different reasons. Let's start first with what I mentioned before, the model for the urbanization of the suburbs. You're building up a city there in Tyson's Corner. You don't want to induce driving, induce vehicular traffic into your downtown by building permanent parking lots, number one. Secondly, a lot of people already drive into Tyson's Corner every day. Why would you want to do that and make your life miserable driving into that trafficky area every single day?
DICARONow, the mall's there at the Tyson's Corner stop. They're going to be doing things. They're not going to charge people to park, but they're going to be doing things for those who still do want to try to drive into Tyson's Corner and take free parking and then take the Silver Line. But what I think this analysis misses -- and this is something that the Tyson's Corner Blog has brought up -- is the Tyson's Corner right now is a destination for people who are working there. It's not a departure point. I don't think we're going to see a lot of people driving into Tyson's Corner to take the Metro somewhere in the mornings. You know, the -- not a reverse commute, talking about, the forward commute, if you will, in the morning.
DICAROTyson's Corner has a 100,000 people working there every day. Many of those people drive there now and they park in their employee parking lots. So folks are not going to be driving there to take the Silver Line somewhere. They will be taking the Silver Line to Tyson's Corner in the morning to work there. So I don't think the parking issue is going to be a big one.
NNAMDILet's hear a testimonial from Dennis in Tyson's Corner, Va. Dennis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DENNISHey, I live in Tyson's and, you know, have lived through this entire construction mess and it will do nothing for me. Like was just commented, it will be everything for commuters coming in to Tyson's, and I guess ultimately when they build all these residential units for those people who will be working maybe downtown. But, you know, these stations just -- I know the so-called Greensboro station which is nowhere near Greensboro, just dumps out in the parking lot in front of Marshal's and Sports Authority. And, you know, I think soon we're just going to see gated parking lots all over Tyson's because everyone's looking for a place to park to get on the train.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. And I'm glad you brought up the, if you will, shape of things to come because the Washington Post, Martin, ran a story early this month about a man who owns -- how can we put this -- an adult business in Tyson's Corner. He fears he's going to be pushed out by the Silver Line, that his business, but moreover, other small businesses are not part of the vision for what transit is going to bring to that part of northern Virginia. What is that vision and are their concerns justified?
DICAROI think that gentleman, his concerns are justified for his adult business. The vision is to have a city grid street network. A lot of these plans are available online for people who are interested. Fairfax County is -- you know, has all the computer renderings of what they're planning there. The developers who own the acreage around the Tyson's Corner stops within a quarter to a half mile of them have computer renderings of what they're envisioning.
DICAROThey're picturing, you know, any area that has seen some remarked -- redevelopment in our area, in the D.C. area. And what you're getting is mixed use, you know, high rent apartment condo high-rises on top of retail and office space. And you're getting a lot of -- you know, like take the U Street corridor. You walk down U Street, 14th Street, you're not seeing a lot of mom and pop and locally-owned. You're seeing some of the high-end designer brands, if you will.
DICAROAnd a lot of this stuff that's going to be coming to Tyson's Corner -- I mean, it's hard to -- it defies easy description right here, as we said, in 2014 this is going to develop over the next couple of decades. And the marketplace is going to have a lot to do with that. But certainly we're looking at, you know, the urbanization of the suburbs. And for somebody who owns a shop like this, it's probably not in the plans, no, an adult business or any maybe small business.
NNAMDIDennis, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Emma in Washington, D.C. Emma, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EMMAYes. I'm so glad I'm able to speak about my experience yesterday. From Eastern Market to Pentagon City, so I transfer at L'Enfant but it was a horror. It was so packed and I missed the Yellow Line. People plant themselves that are going to, I guess, Branch Avenue and they don't move. So it's hard to get to your car to get on or off. And anyway...
NNAMDIAre you anticipating that this will become even more difficult now with the Silver Line?
EMMAWell, it was -- I'm a senior and I was trying to get on the last car to be close to the elevator. And people don't move and you don't know whether to push ahead or -- it was terrible.
DICAROSo you went from...
EMMAI got caught in the doors. I got caught in the doors and nobody helped me.
DICAROYou went from Eastern Market to, where, L'Enfant?
EMMATo get the Yellow Line...
EMMA...towards Pentagon City because at Eastern Market, on the -- you know, it showed -- it didn't show any of the Blue Line's time.
DICAROAnd that'll be common place. The next three trains will likely be Orange Line before a Blue Line shows up because the Orange Line is running so frequently now.
EMMAIt didn't show -- I mean, well, it didn't show. The times on there were quite long.
NNAMDIIt was a terrible, terrible experience. But the people going to Branch Avenue, when you transfer they don't move out of the way so that you can even try to get onto...
NNAMDIWhat's wrong with those people going to Branch Avenue? I don't know but it's something that we'll be looking at more closely as the Silver Line gets underway in just a few days. And Martin, you actually plan on riding the things.
DICAROAll right. Well, Saturday, because of a family commitment, after all the reporting I've done over the last two-and-a-half years, I will be unable to ride the maiden Silver Line voyage. However, Monday morning, the first real day of service, work day, I'll be out at Wiehle Avenue in Reston and checking out ridership on the Silver Line coming in and just trying to figure out who's taking this, why did they choose to take it. This is so important.
DICAROAnd certainly not to make light of the woman's experience on the Blue and the Orange Line, because that is certainly not fun, but the Silver Line is one of the biggest stories in our region, period. Not just a transportation story. We're talking about transformational project here. And we'll be keeping track of who's taking it and who's using it and why they're using it and how it's going to shape our region.
NNAMDIThat's how we know this is a serious family commitment on Saturday. Martin Di Caro is a transportation reporter for WAMU 88.5. Martin, thank you so much for joining us.
DICAROAll right. Any time, Kojo.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, "Rogue Elephant." Veteran journalist Simon Denyer explores the future of India's complicated and often unruly democracy. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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