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Dulles Rail is Fanciful Extravagance

Dulles Rail is Fanciful Extravagance

November 1, 2002

In Northern Virginia transportation planners seem hell-bent on committing the region to a $3.3 billion, thirteen station, Metrorail extension in the Dulles corridor. They want a decision on rail or bus rapid transit (BRT) before they will start work on a financial plan to fund either. This is analogous to a family trying to choose between a Bentley or a Rolls Royce, when a Chevrolet or Ford might be better suited to the family’s needs and budget, and only then considering how to finance the purchase.

These expensive options are being pushed by a planning study that is being conducted jointly by Washington Metro (WMATA) and the Virginia Department of Rail (VDRPT). These are agencies with big vested interests in heavy rail, or at least in a rail-like superbus. It’s what puts them on the map. It’s what they do.

Not only would the WMATA/VDRPT system be far more expensive than more flexible road-based alternatives, but it also would offer inferior service and attract lower ridership. The WMATA/VDRPT ridership projection of 70,000 daily riders for rail is totally fanciful. That’s the equivalent of about half the drivers on the Dulles Toll Road suddenly deciding to leave their cars at home and ride the rail, even though at least half of them have destinations nowhere near the Metro. Seven thousand riders per day is a more likely estimate.

The 70,000 projection assumes massive new residential and commercial developments clustered immediately around and on top of the proposed stations. That would not happen because neighborhoods nearby strongly object to such “upzoning” and because commercial space is heavily overbuilt already. There will not be any substantial new commercial development for several years, while the existing surplus is absorbed. Developments based on station-access alone are not likely to be attractive investments anyway.

So almost everybody using those median stations – whether rail or BRT stations – in practice would be forced to rely on long walkways across the road to parking decks, and shuttle bus trips to and from those stations. The walking and waiting times would make the station-based system unattractive. Patronage would be low, fare revenues would be small, and huge subsidies would inevitably be required. There would be negligible traffic relief.

Rail is wrong for Dulles Airport, too. As an international and long-distance airport, most travelers there have luggage. People will not take serious luggage up and down escalators, through turnstiles, and onto trains. Also, most air travelers on long trips go to the airport directly from their homes or hotels. The Metrorail system doesn’t get close to most homes or hotels. Dulles airport is comparable to BWI in that BWI has rail directly to the terminal that is used by a few airport employees, but by almost no travelers.

The Dulles corridor suburbs and the airport need transit based on cabs, vans, minibuses, and buses running on an adaptable and evolving combination of special lanes, priority ramps, and existing roads. That way people and goods can be picked up and delivered by suitably sized vehicles on a door-to-door basis with a driver available to heft luggage. Such vehicles will be able to proceed nonstop – rail in the corridor would be stopping at station after station – with minimal transfers. Road-based transit will be more economical to build and operate, and will attract a higher ridership than unsuitable station-&-transfer based rail.

Rail to Tysons Corner from West Falls Church may be justified. Tysons has a large concentration of workplaces and commerce, could support shuttle services going into the suburbs of the Dulles corridor as well as to different terminals at the airport. Some would use the Dulles Toll Road, others could choose alternative routes. A Tysons rail terminus would also allow motorists to transfer from the Beltway, or the Toll Road, to Metro in a way they cannot at West Falls Church or indeed any other Metro station.

Not only would a more modest approach – rail to Tysons, roads beyond – save the region from a special taxing district and higher tolls, but it would keep the charming drifts of windswept pines in the central median of the Dulles Toll Road thus retaining a small element of beauty there.