Earlier this week, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced that the long-delayed Silver Line will begin moving passengers on July 26.
News of the rail line’s launch fueled a string of glowing endorsements from elected officials across the county. Hunter Mill Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D) characterized it as “a testament to the ingenuity of the entire Washington metropolitan area.” Board Chairwoman Sharon Bulova (D) called it “terrific news” and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said rail “will improve daily life for thousands of commuters and that the long-term benefits in improved traffic, economic development and livable communities will be worth the wait.”
Hopefully, the end of that decade-long wait will shift the Silver Line debate from cost overruns and construction delays to a more basic discussion — one that involves getting 150,000 Fairfax- and Loudoun-based commuters to trade in their car keys for a Metro farecard.
Getting people to change age-old habits is never easy. For starters, how many of the folks rolling up Route 7 in their Lexus GS or BMW X1 have taken Metro in the past year? Just as important, how many plan to ride the Silver Line during its first week? What about in its first month? 2015? 2020?
The answer to those questions, obviously, will go a long way toward determining whether the project’s $5.7 billion price tag — $2.9 billion for the just-completed first phase and $2.8 billion for the yet-to-be-built second portion — can be justified.
Among rail proponents, ridership forecasts often include a fully redeveloped Tysons Corner with 100,000 residents and 200,000 others visiting daily to work or shop. Problem is, those numbers won’t become reality until 2040, at the earliest. Today, roughly 22,000 people call Tysons home, meaning drivers from Great Falls, Herndon and points west will largely determine the Silver Line’s success over the next 20 years.
Depending on the year and the study, monthly ridership forecasts for the Silver Line range from 480,000 to 750,000 by the end of next year.
If Metro officials hope to get within shouting distance of that 750,000-rider figure, they’ll have to make significant progress on a few fronts.
None is more important than implementing an effective marketing campaign, one that educates drivers on the benefits of public transportation and incentivizes them to use it and stick with it. Based on dozens of informal conversations we’ve had with potential riders, many could use a Metro 101 course. With rail slated to roll through western Fairfax County in less than 30 days, far too many people remain in the dark about station locations, parking availability and fare costs. There also are questions about operating hours and the availability of local bus service from each station.
Even more troubling, many don’t yet know where the Silver Line’s first phase begins and ends. Some believe it ends in Tysons, while others are convinced it comes to a stop at Dulles Airport.
Fortunately, a few are aware that it branches off from the Orange Line at East Falls Church and adds five new stations, including McLean, Tysons Corner, Greensboro, Spring Hill and Wiehle-Reston East.
Boosting the public’s awareness level over the next month is critical in any success Metro has between now and 2015. Offering a free one-day pass from each of the new stations would be a wise idea. So would deeply discounting a one-month pass for those who intend to use Metro five days a week going forward.
Everyone who lives in this region — including residents of Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties — has a vested interest in the Silver Line’s success. At the end of the day, higher Metro ridership translates to cheaper tolls, cleaner air and fewer cars on our traffic-choked roads.
Spread the word.