The Silver bullet

One-year-old Metro line is a catalyst for growth

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Metro officials say ridership in Phase I of the Silver Line
is outperforming expectations. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Phase I of Metro’s Silver Line marks its first anniversary in July, and that is a cause for celebration in Northern Virginia. Since rail arrived, the fortunes of Tysons Corner and Reston have been building — literally — and the silhouette most common to their skylines has become the construction crane.

Even in western Fairfax and eastern Loudoun counties, where Phase II of the Silver Line probably won’t open until 2020, growth is on a fast track. Developers and planners see how the first phase of the line is altering the neighboring landscape, and they are all aboard for the change that is coming.

This spring, Metro had to share some less than great news about the Silver Line: Design modifications would be adding $76 million to the cost of Phase I, bringing the final price tag to $2.98 billion, and the opening of the $2.7 billion Phase II, originally to be in 2019, would be delayed 13 months because of weather problems, design modifications and new stormwater management requirements. Despite these setbacks, Phase I of the system is performing better than expected, and it is acting as a catalyst for a surge in growth.

Shyam Kannan, managing director of planning for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, says Phase I — which consists of the McLean, Tysons Corner, Greensboro, Spring Hill and Wiehle-Reston East stations — is outperforming ridership projections.

Wiehle, the station at the end of the line, is the busiest of the five stations, logging more than 8,000 daily entries. Greensboro, the quietest stop, has been averaging 943 entries.

Commuter traffic is flowing in both directions on the railway, with a reverse commuting market that Kannan terms “pretty significant.” Almost two-thirds of Silver Line riders cross the Potomac, and 17 percent travel to and from Maryland. About 1,500 rides a day are confined solely to the new railway.

Weekend use of the Silver Line has been even stronger than weekday use. On “Black Friday,” the traditionally heavy shopping day after Thanksgiving, for example, the Tysons Corner stop “was through the roof,” Kannan says, with 11,000 entries. In general, that station, which serves the Tysons Corner Center and Tysons Galleria shopping malls, posts weekend ridership numbers second only to the Woodley Park stop in the District, which provides access to the National Zoo.

Unlike two other recent transportation additions to the Washington area, the Intercounty Connector in Maryland and the hot lanes on the Beltway, the Silver Line has not had to be sold to an unconvinced public, Kannan says. The demand was there. And with 20 million square feet of construction taking place at Tysons, the Metro planner says that usage surely will grow.

Michael Caplin, president of the Tysons Partnership, a coalition of business, government and community leaders, concurs.  “It’s go, go, go at Tysons,” he says. “Ridership is exceeding expectations, construction is proceeding with gusto, and retail sales are strong.”

Fairfax County’s master plan permits unlimited density within a quarter mile of the new Metro stops, with the result that during this spring alone, more than 400 units of luxury housing have opened near the Spring Hill station and more than 800 units close to the Tysons Corner stop. Hundreds more units are planned.

Capital One Financial Corp. is putting up a 34-story office tower near the Mclean station, which, after the Pentagon, will be the second-largest building in the region.

Tech companies are moving in at Tysons, as well.  One recent arrival is Cvent, a software company that does logistical support for major events. Last year, Cvent relocated from a site about a mile away to be adjacent to the Greensboro station, saying specifically that it wanted its 400-plus employees to have access to Metro. 

In April, the 300-room Hyatt Regency became the first new hotel to open at Tysons in 20 years, and it pointedly touts its location just 200 yards from the Tysons Corner station. In May, Whole Foods announced it will open a 70,000-square-foot store at a planned 3.7-million-square-foot mixed-use development called The Boro near the Greensboro station. With that amount of development in the works nearby, the Greensboro station is unlikely to remain the quietest on the line for long.

In Reston, a 1.5-million-square-foot, mixed-use public-private development called Reston Station is going up around the Wiehle station, which has become a regional transit hub. With 2,300 parking spaces, Wiehle is the only station on Phase I that has designated parking. It also has a 10-bay bus terminal that serves Fairfax and Loudoun as well as Washington Dulles International Airport.

Mark Ingrao, president and CEO of the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce, says the coming of Phase II of the Silver Line to Reston Town Center in five years has increased the number of applications for construction permits there. Several luxury apartment buildings within walking distance of the planned railway stop already have opened. “There’s a lot of interest in residential units,” Ingrao says.

Reston Town Center will be the first of six stations on Phase II of the Silver Line. The other stops heading west will be Herndon and the Innovation Center, also in Fairfax County, and Dulles Airport, Route 606 and Route 772 in Loudoun. The Herndon station, Route 606 and Route 772 all will have designated parking.

In Loudoun, “lots of folks are getting prepared for Metro,” says Tony Howard, president of the county’s Chamber of Commerce. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, an opportunity to shape our future.”

Loudoun has the advantage of still having plenty of green space that can be developed, Howard says, which makes it attractive to commercial developers. Its challenge will be to provide the cultural amenities to leverage that investment and foster a sense of place.

“The market is going toward an urban, workable environment,” Howard  notes,  which precisely describes the Loudoun Station complex that is coming out of the ground near the Route 772 Metro stop. Loudoun Station advertises itself as a “downtown community,” featuring offices, residences, restaurants, retail and entertainment options. An 11-screen movie theater opened there this spring.

Herndon, too, envisions a citylike environment around its Metro station — as much as 3.2 million square feet of commercial space and 2,400 housing units by 2035.

All of this current and future development will transform a landscape that was decidedly rural just 30 years ago into a network of suburban cities, all connected by rail. As Caplin points out, “Access to Metro will be the differentiator.”

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