Wes Vernon Commentary
May 2011

Dulles Rail: Can We Talk?

We may very well witness, again, the utter folly of spending billions of taxpayer dollars supposedly enabling us to "take the train to the plane" only to force long-distance airline passengers to take a four-football-fields-long hike, complete with their luggage, in order to reach the air terminal.

That is the prospect for the badly-needed Metrorail service now under construction to serve Dulles International Airport--the Silver Line.

Here is a multiple choice quiz: If we do this, potential passengers will say, (A) "Great, I needed the exercise anyway," (B) "Come on, Grandma. You can haul that steamer trunk to the plane. Hup two three four!" (C) "Hey, this is child's play, preparing me for the great reward of my TSA body search at the gate" or (D) "Who in his right mind wants to go through this garbage?"

Which one?

(Time out for the little Jeopardy jingle.)

If you answered D, you go to the head of the class. If you answered A, B, or C, well, you may want to sit down and ponder it for a while.

All of this is reminiscent of the guy who recounted his strange visit "to Atlantic City while staying at the William Penn Hotel." When told the William Penn Hotel was in Philadelphia, the man scratched his head and said, "Oh! No wonder it was such a long walk to the beach!"

Govt. foot-dragging

The governments of Fairfax County, Loudoun County, and the Commonwealth of Virginia have said they "cannot and will not" pay their share of the extra $330 million price tag involved in placing the station at an underground station rather than an above ground facility farther away from the airport.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority voted 9 to 4 to start planning for the underground Metro stop. The state and county governments can hardly be blamed for saying (paraphrasing now) "Excuse us, but we're paying a much bigger chunk of the bill than you guys are. It's not nice to shut your investing partners out of this decision and then tell us, 'Oh, by the way, we just raised your cost. So, hand it over.'"

On that point, my sympathies.

But add to that the fact that the users of the Dulles Toll Road already believe they are paying the proverbial king's ransom to kick in a goodly slice of cash to the Silver Line project. To stick them with the inevitable even higher tolls adds insult to their injury, in their opinion.

On that point, my cold-eyed lack of sympathy. Welcome to the real world! Highways are not "free."

Those whiners are paying for improved transportation, not for (altogether now) "trains that we will never use."

The burgeoning population of the Washington metropolitan area is, pardon the redundancy, anything but static. Those with the ability to see beyond their noses understand that the Metro Silver Line can be considered the equivalent of new lanes to their highway.

If they decide that reading the newspaper or a book is more intellectually stimulating than staring at the license plate in front of them, they will ride the trains and leave the automobile home.

On the other hand, if they believe doing the license plate routine is their favorite thing next to poisoned apples, at least they'll be able to travel at a better clip because some other would-be motorists will instead be on the train, possibly waving at these drivers as they zip by.

So what to do?

This current flap over the airport station calls to mind the earlier stages of planning for Dulles Rail back in 2007/2008. Superficially, the issues of above-ground vs. underground, at that time, regarding the four stations at Tysons Corner (Part of Phase 1), resemble the issues at the airport (Part of Phase 2).

This column strongly advocated the above-ground routing for the Silver Line at Tysons, the largest commercial/residential complex in the area other than downtown Washington.

What was different about that issue was (1) we were talking about monetary differences in the billions with a B, and (2) the whole Dulles rail project was then hanging by a thread pending approval by a hostile Federal Transit Administration (FTA). That agency's administrator, James Simpson, was pressuring the state and other interested parties to slash funding at every opportunity. Simpson's boss, then DOT Secretary Mary Peters, did not want the Dulles rail line to be built. On surface transportation, she was knee-jerk all-highways-all-the-time.

I argued in this space that, nice as it would be to have the Tysons Metro operate underground, cost-cutting was ultra important. It was either that, or the whole project would be dead. Even with the above-ground configuration at Tysons, the Bush administration would still have killed it had it not been for the back room maneuvering between the late Paul Weyrich and then Congressman (now Senator) Roy Blunt of Missouri. FTA caved while adding some face-savers for itself.

That was then, this is now

Moreover, it would be just as convenient for shoppers, business people, and residents at Tysons to arrive there by above ground train as it would have been to use the far more expensive underground facilities. That is not the case at Dulles where we're talking about air passengers who might be travelers to London or India.

The aesthetics

Another bone I had picked with the underground advocates at Tysons was their assumption that the sight of those vulgah trains out in plain view was somehow suggestive of squalor, crime-breeding conditions and sliding property values.

I for one will never understand how it is that we can tolerate endless parades of automobiles and smoke-belching trucks and never raise the bugaboo about threats to property values. What, pray tell, makes a train uglier to the surroundings than petroleum-fueled transport? I guess we can understand snobs who have something to be snobbish about. That doesn't apply here.

Above ground, but with conditions?

The underground station would be 550 feet from the main terminal. The above-ground Metro stop would be 1,150 feet away. These figures are provided by the Washington Post which had editorially screamed for the hugely more expensive underground option at Tysons, but now calls the modestly priced (by comparison) below-surface facility at the airport a "boondoggle." You go figure.

However, although the underground station makes sense, the ultimate goal is to see to it that the full Dulles Line is in fact built. There are voices out there calling for the complete termination of the project, even with all the work that has been done on it. And in this era of (justified) calls for austerity, we may have been backed into a corner where we either build the station above ground or there won't be any station because there won't be any trains. I hate to say it, but it's that simple.

We're just going to have to reinvent the wheel and let the dummies relearn the lesson one would have thought they had learned when they built an above-ground station to serve Reagan National. Only 20 years later, with the expansion of that airport, did common sense come into play there.

If the above-ground station is built at Dulles, the following conditions should apply:

1 - Moving sheltered sidewalks between the Metro stop and the air terminal.

2 - A skycap station at the Metro stop, fully staffed and ready to assist train-to-plane passengers.

3 - For elderly and disabled passengers, and those with small children, the skycap station should have vehicles (similar to those at Washington's Union Station) accommodating both passengers and their luggage, with the skycap driving them directly to the check-in at the air terminal, as well as from the luggage pickup to the Metro.

4 - Though a shuttle bus may work in addition to the above, it will not do as a replacement. Its operation at Reagan National's first 20 years was a joke. On the other hand, it seems (last I checked) to work well at the BWI/Amtrak connection. Perhaps it could supplement the other suggestions in 1, 2, and 3.

5 - The Dulles Metro stop should have an enforceable (by severe penalties up to and including firings) policy that there shall be no such animal as out-of-service elevators and escalators. This would be a good time to learn if reliable operations of this sort are possible at any Metro stop.

The point is that once passengers arrive at or near the airport, they should not have to wait around before they can just get in line to check in. Otherwise they will find alternate means of transportation. In fact, the way public officials and newspaper editorial writers are approaching this; you would think that's what they have in mind.