Autumn on Lake Audobon

Autumn on Lake Audobon
Autumn on Lake Audubon, Photo by Alison Kamat

Friday, March 21, 2014

So where is our Silver Line?

Terry Maynard

Things were looking promising last summer for opening the Silver Line.  We might actually have Metrorail service in Reston by the end of 2013 as promised repeatedly since the project began. 

A sign of the times.  (RestonNow)
Then the project timeline derailed, so to speak.

The start of Silver Line operations is now three months overdue and no one involved with the line’s construction is willing even to speculate when service will begin.  Press reports say that start-up has been delayed “indefinitely.”  Supervisor Hudgins has said she would be “very disappointed” if operations were not begun by the end of summer.  Yet, there is the distinct possibility that the Silver Line won’t open to Reston until 2015—more than a year late.  How many millions of dollars over budget and who will pay those sums remain huge unknowns despite contract terms putting cost overruns on the contractor and the project manager, MWAA. 

We first got a hint of significant construction schedule issues to come when two test trains knocked handrails and emergency shutoff switches, reportedly installed in the wrong place, off the wall of the rail tunnel in late 2012How does a competent contractor on a multi-billion dollar project put handrails and switches in the wrong place?  Nonetheless, assurances were given that there was nothing wrong with the tunnel even though an inch of settling in the tunnel floor had been reported a year before these incidents.

And press reports kept dribbling out last spring that there were problems with the line’s Automatic Train Control (ATC) system, including unauthorized changes in the design by its builder, Alstom Signaling.  The ATC system controls train movement and ensures proper spacing between trains.  The failure of the ATC system on Metro’s Red Line killed nine people and injured dozens more in 2009 when one Red Line train plowed into another.    Neither MWAA nor the contractor would confirm the ATC problems. 

Fatal Metrorail Red Line accident, 2009.  (Washington Post)
In May, MWAA officials were saying the project was on schedule to open in December.  The builder’s project executive director said it was 98% complete.  In June, MWAA CEO Jack Potter even said the project would be ready to turn over to WMATA on September 9, allowing WMATA’s 90-day test and training period before opening in December—on schedule.   

Then, July 17, the schedule lurched.  MWAA announced “that the expected substantial completion of Phase 1 of the Metrorail Silver Line project would be delayed by approximately eight weeks.”  Neither MWAA nor the contractor would say what caused the delay.  At the outside, that meant the project would be ready for turnover to WMATA—“substantially complete”—by the end of October or early November.

October and November passed without “substantial completion” or an explanation.

MWAA finally confirmed in a December 2, 2013, press release that continuing failures in updates to the ATC software would cause further completion delays.  No other problems were identified and no date for completion was set.

Maybe early 2014.

At first, some good news.  In early February, the contractor declared that work on the project was “substantially complete.”  MWAA had 15 days to review the contractor’s work and certify that it was satisfied that it could turn the project over to WMATA.  WMATA would then have a 90-day period of final testing and training of train operators before beginning service to Reston.   
But that didn’t happen.  In a February 24 press release, MWAA and WMATA “determined the contractor has not yet met the contract requirements for substantial completion.”  In fact, the contractor failed to meet contract requirements in seven of the 12 areas of review.   Some were nuisance issues, but the ATC continued to have “performance issues” and MWAA noted a“(f)ailure to fully correct defects that impact operations, including track gage problems.”  What?  They couldn’t lay the tracks right?

Yet, now, a month later, nothing has been done. 

And the atmosphere turned stormy this week.  Threats of multi-million dollar fines are in the air if the project is not “substantially complete” by the April 9 contract deadline.  The lead contractor blames MWAA, saying, “MWAA has yet to specify what it believes needs to be done before we can re-submit the substantial completion package.”  MWAA says it has been meeting several times daily with the contractor to work out the issues.   The contractor has also hinted that the deadline—and the fines that would follow—may be negotiable, apparently looking for a plea bargain deal.  On the other hand, former Congressman Tom Davis, now an MWAA Board member and Chairman of its Dulles Corridor Committee, called the situation “a soap opera” and is threatening a lawsuit  for liquidated damages if the contractor does not meet the deadline.

These interactions are rapidly turning away from “good faith” discussions among engineers and technicians solving construction problems.  They are becoming a standoff between accountants and attorneys for the two sides who are more interested in evading responsibility for failures and added costs than getting the job done.  They certainly aren’t driven by meeting a budget or a schedule.  Most importantly, they do not appear to have even a hint of the broader public interest in mind.

Reston wants its Silver Line rail line service now, even though it will be impossible for service to begin in the first half of the year. 

And we don’t want to pay for the shortcomings of either or both of the parties to this growing construction delays. 

It is past time for our elected leaders, county, state, and federal, to press both MWAA and Bechtel, reminding them whose money they are spending and whose rail service they are supposed to provide.   They have been missing in action as this fiasco unfolds.

They must act now to press for an immediate resolution of the dispute.  They need to obtain ironclad assurances that additional costs will be borne by themselves, not by either federal, state, or local governments or especially by Dulles Toll Road users who are already stuck paying for half the$3 billion project.  They should also make sure that forthcoming fines are applied against the onerous debt laid on Dulles Toll road users over the next four decades. 

If our leaders don’t quickly resolve this situation, the Silver Line may not open until next year and we may pay millions of dollars through added tolls and taxes for the failure of MWAA and Bechtel to meet their contractual obligations.   At worst, MWAA and Bechtel may go to court, putting completion of the project on hold indefinitely. 

Our station is ready.  Where are our Silver Line trains? (Robert Thomson/Washington Post)

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