The first phase of the Silver Line Metrorail project, which will run from Falls Church to Reston’s Wiehle Avenue, was originally slated to be completed in December.
That target softened a bit last summer when MWAA officials said “a few more weeks” were needed to firm up a handful of safety and performance issues.
Well, December became January, which turned into February, which extended to March, which may eventually lead to a summer without Metrorail service in western Fairfax.
To call this a missed opportunity for Metro is akin to calling Mount Everest a good-sized mountain. Given the many problems the beleaguered transit authority has dealt with in recent years, a smooth, timely launch of the Silver Line would have provided a much-needed public relations boost.
Instead, would-be Metro riders are being told that Dulles Transit Partners, the Silver Line’s lead contractor, was deficient in seven of 12 areas required by MWAA to meet “substantial completion,” the point at which MWAA can begin to turn over the Silver Line to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which will operate the rail line as part of the Metro system.
Reaching that milestone may take awhile. In addition to missing safety certificates and problems with the automatic train control system, project inspectors discovered problematic elevators and escalators, water leaks in buildings and a handful of other issues that will require time and money to resolve.
Nobody should fault MWAA for erring on the side of caution and safety. After all, it’s been less than five years since a “signaling problem” led to a fatal crash on Metro’s Red Line.
It’s also worth noting that few multi-billion dollar transit projects as complex as this one hit every deadline. Tests unearth problems and adjustments need to be made.
The bigger issue the time it’s taking to resolve those problems and making sure those being hurt by the delays aren’t penalized two or three times over. For a cash-strapped Metro system, every delay is a lost opportunity for ridership and revenue.
Dulles Transit Partners had plenty of good reasons to get Silver Line trains to the station on time. Had they finished ahead of schedule, they would have received an eight-figure bonus.
Instead, they’re facing significant fines. If the project isn’t completed by April 10, the contractor will be hit with a $25,000-a-day penalty. If trains aren’t running by mid July, they’ll have to pay more than $2 million in fines, plus $75,000 per day. If repairs drag into October, they can be hit with a $60 million penalty — which represents the limit of their liability.
That’s a big chunk of money, but it’s worth noting that more than a few entities are being hurt by the Silver Line delays. In a letter to MWAA officials last December, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) argued that, with every month of delay, the traveling public suffers and millions of dollars in fare revenue are lost. In addition to commuters and Metro, other victims include businesses along the Dulles Corridor, Fairfax County taxpayers and Dulles Toll Road users.
Toll road users are already paying an extraordinarily high cost to fund this $5.6 billion project, so it’s critical that any price escalation that comes as a result of the latest round of delays and repairs not be passed on to them.
Construction on the second phase to take the Silver Line to Dulles and beyond is scheduled to begin this summer. Setting firm parameters now will likely pay significant dividends four or five years down the road.