Reston Spring

Reston Spring
Reston Spring

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

When will the Silver Line start operations? How safe will it be? And how much more will it cost--and who?

On April 23, MWAA's Silver Line project team certified that Phase 1 of the project to Wiehle was "substantially complete" although it still had a "punch list" of 50 items--plus sub-items--of work to complete before it would turn over the line to WMATA for further testing, training, and ultimately operations.  The April 24th announcement meant that DTP, led by Bechtel, met its basic contractual commitment to the line's construction and would not face $25,000 a day penalties to begin the next day.  Moreover, the announcement did not mean what "substantial completion" should have meant--the immediate turnover of the project to WMATA for its 90-day testing and training period.  That 90-day clock doesn't start until the "punch list" is satisfied.  Tick, tock.

Yesterday, more than two weeks following MWAA's announcement, Metro's public relations staff held a teleconference to lay out MWAA's progress in addressing DTP's continuing construction failures.  (And why Metro is plugging for MWAA is a bafflement.)  Following the press conference, RestonNow (Karen Goff) reported:
A Metro official says the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is making progress on pre-operational fixes to the Silver Line, however he still cannot pinpoint an opening date for the first phase of the $5.6 billion rail extension.
“We are tracking to be able to provide service sometime this summer,” Rob Troup, Metro Deputy General Manager of Operations said Monday in a media conference call. “A lot depends on progress MWAA makes in resolving issues. I can’t tell you an operational readiness date, but I am encouraged by the progress.”
Troup said that MWAA is “at the more than the halfway point for the pre-ORD items.”
On the other hand, Washington Business Journal (Michael Neibauer) reported:
Metro still hopes to launch service on the Silver Line by late summer, but it doesn't yet have control of the rail line and a new issue that popped up this weekend has been deemed a “concern” by the transit agency.
Rob Troup, Metro's deputy general manager for operations, told reporters on Monday that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and its Silver Line contractor, Dulles Transit Partners, have knocked out more than half of the punch list items that must be cleared before Metro can take ownership of the 11.7-mile, $3 billion rail line.
But a new issue involving what Troup described as a “bobbing track circuit” threatens to slow (not derail) the work. It’s not a safety issue, Troup emphasized, but rather an issue of reliability — as Silver Line trains approach the Orange Line boundary, “the track circuit will go to a false occupancy” and trains will “go into a braking profile.” The last thing Metro wants is for Silver Line trains to halt every time they approach the East Falls Church station on the Orange Line.
RestonNow follows up:
The April 23 agreement called for adding four blocking capacitors to address the (bobbing track circuit) issue. The fixes fared well in testing, but over the weekend one failed, said Troup. He said this is also a reliability issue and not a safety issue, and after operational readiness this will also have a system upgrade.
Our read:  MWAA and DTP have fixed the easy shortcomings in Silver Line construction, but still haven't fixed the more challenging failures, including the "bobbing track circuit" despite what they thought were repairs.  Moreover, as was previously announced, they will not have the RTU problem repaired for another year, meaning additional acquisition ($1.8 million) and operational expenses (who knows how much?) generated by requiring "eyes on the rail" to make sure trains are where they should be.

And, if all of this is to lead to Silver Line operations by "sometime this summer," MWAA and DTP need to have all their repair and replacement work done by the end of June (about 7 weeks from now).  Then, WMATA can have its full 90-day period to test the line and train its operators before the end of September--and the end of summer by its most extended definition.  Given the remarkably pathetic history of delays and failures in this project, WMATA should take as much time as required to make sure system reliability and safety are assured before launching into operations, complete with a photo op attended by every ear-to-ear grinning politician who ever said "Silver Line."

Should you feel safe riding the Silver Line?

An observation:  MWAA and Metro both state the longstanding (and continuing) RTU problem and the newly discussed (but apparently also longstanding) bobbing track circuit problem--both of which deal with detecting the presence or absence of a train at a particular point--are reliability issues, not safety issues.  We wonder how many reliability issues--especially ones tied to knowing where Metrorail trains are on the Silver Line--it takes to become a safety issue.  If Metro doesn't know where the trains are, how can MWAA or Metro assure anyone that the trains are safe to ride?

And we will once again point out that the fatal 2009 Metrorail Red Line accident--the worst accident in Metro history--was the direct result of the failure of an automated device to sense the presence of a train and the obstructed view of the train operator who could not react quickly enough to stop.  In light of this deadly history, the continuing official assertions of the multiple "reliability issues" without full explanation of why they aren't--individually or together--a "safety issue" is utter nonsense that, apparently, we are suppose to accept on face value.  We don't. 

. . .  And please show me the money!

Missing in total from Monday's Metro media seance was any--and we mean "any"--information or discussion about how much all these repairs would cost and who would end up paying for them.  The construction contingency fund, which started at nearly $462 million at the project's outset, has dwindled to $23 million through February 2014, according to the Project Manager's report to the MWAA Dulles Corridor Committee.   We have a hard time believing there is any money left in that fund in mid-May as DTP and MWAA try to salvage this rail construction project.

So how much more will it cost?  We don't know, but we'd be hardpressed to not believe we are talking tens of millions of dollars more, possibly as much as $100 million.  And, since MWAA let pass the opportunity to penalize DTP $25,000 per day, that is at least $1.6 million the project will have to absorb by the end of June when we might hope the "punch list" is fully satisfied--more if it takes longer. 

And the grossly unfair part of all this is that, under the illogical and inequitable "funding partners agreement" among MWAA, Loudoun, and Fairfax governments, Dulles Toll Road users will end up paying 75% of the added costs unless some other arrangement has been reached.  But, of course, all parties to the "funding partners agreement" as well as WMATA have not said a word about who will pay the extra costs.

As much as we have believed--and fought--the dominant role played by DTR users in funding the construction of the Metrorail line, we find the idea that they may need to pay for the massive failures of the project builders (DTP) and their project managers (MWAA) to meet their contractual commitments grotesque.  

All we wonder at this point is whether MWAA will be able to keep its commitment to no new toll hikes through 2018 given the recent awarding of low-cost federal TIFIA financing once the final bill for building Phase 1 of the Silver Line comes in.

. . . and then there will be Phase 2.

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