Reston Spring

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

What’s going on with the Silver Line (Part 1)? MWAA’s Certification—or Not--Announcement Tomorrow

All of a sudden, there is a plethora of news articles about the Silver Line, some enthusiastic about progress, others concerned about further delays.  

In the next few paragraphs, I try to work through the various issues discussed in these articles and provide a bit clearer (but maybe no more accurate) picture of what’s going on with the Silver Line?  I post links to all the articles I reference so, if you want, you can draw your own conclusions.

Numerous newspaper and broadcast reports indicate MWAA will report on Monday, February 24, its decision on whether to accept that the work done by Bechtel meets MWAA’s contractual requirements for construction of Phase 1 of the Silver Line to Wiehle.  The announcement reflects that the 15-day MWAA testing period has ended an MWAA needs to either accept Bechtel’s work by certifying the construction or direct them to make needed corrections.  AriAshe of WTOP (2/22) puts it this way, “If MWAA certifies the Silver Line, then it would quickly be turned over to Metro for additional testing.   But the transition may not be instantaneous.”   

MWAA’s certification is the next benchmark in moving toward operation of the Silver Line.  If certification is received, then WMATA has 90 days to conduct tests of the line itself to see if it measures up to its standards.  Thereafter, regular service on the line could begin. 

Ashe also reports (WTOP, 2/21) that there are still sufficient shortcomings in Bechtel’s work that MWAA’s certification may not be forthcoming or it will be highly conditional on a number of corrections.  In an earlier report by Ashe, WTOP says:

Sources tell WTOP that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) will announce on Monday that it does not consider the Silver Line complete, citing issues with the automatic train control circuitry and other new issues. The contractor building the Silver Line told MWAA on Feb. 7 that it believed the project was complete. MWAA had 15 days to inspect the work and decide whether it agreed that the tracks could be turned over to Metro.
The automatic train control circuits and other electronic signal issues were behind a delay announced late last year that caused the project to be delayed into 2014.

Comments by Supervisor Hudgins, quoted in Ashe’s later report (2/22) suggest we should anticipate further delays in full certification of Bechtel’s construction work.  

"It's with bated breath because we know when MWAA gives its go-ahead, it still needs time to wait here at WMATA to go through the process and do our due diligence," she says.

Metro has set a 90-day window for testing, although Hudgins says she hopes that the delays have allowed Metro to coordinate to the point that some days could be shed off. With no interruptions, service could begin in June. But Hudgins doesn't want to set a target date.

"I won't tell a date for a very clear reason -- a date means that something might happen and if it doesn't, there's something harshly wrong," she says.

Nonetheless, Hudgins says she would be "very disappointed" if rail service on the Silver Line didn't begin before the end of this summer.

So, in the absence of an MWAA certification on Monday that could see the line opening late May-early June, we could see the opening delayed an additional four months until September.  We will have to wait and see what MWAA has to say.
One report by RestonNow (2/21) notes that WMATA loses $2 million each month the line is not operating.  It is true that WMATA is not collecting those revenues, but it is also true that there are no operating costs if the line is not operating.  In fact, once the line begins operation, it—like the rest of the Metrorail lines—will continue to operate at a deficit that requires the area’s local governments—including Fairfax County—to contribute tax dollars to make up the difference.  

In fact, in FY2013, WMATA data shows Metrorail operating revenues were $605 million while operating expenses totaled $896 million—a $291 million deficit (33%).  Fairfax County is expected to pay about $35 million to subsidize Metrorail operations as part of more than $100 million to cover all WMATA subsidies in FY2014 according to the WMATA FY2014 budget.   The subsidy to Metrobus (which is little used in the County because of the Fairfax Connector) comes in at about $53 million while the rest of the County’s subsidy is for MetroAccess and debt service.   The bottom line on the Silver Line is that, to the extent the line would produce $2 million in revenue per month, County tax payers are not having to subsidize the line to the tune of about one million dollars a month while it is NOT operating. 

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