Sep 29, 2022 - News

WMATA's Silver Line hopes to find success

Average daily D.C. metro riders in 2019 and 2022
Data: WMATA. Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Metro aims to open the long-awaited Silver Line extension this year but the agency’s meager pandemic ridership, triggered in large part by the move to remote work, begs the question: who’s going to ride it?

Why it matters: A failure to attract riders to the $3 billion Silver Line project would further worsen the agency's budgetary woes — current estimates predict a $185 million budget deficit next fiscal year.

Catch up quick: The extension adds six stations that span 11.4 miles from Ashburn to Reston Town Center starting after Wiehle-Reston. Dulles will be the third-to-last stop on the line.  

What’s happening: Axios' analysis of Metrorail ridership data shows that generally stations toward the end of the line, particularly those in the NoVa suburbs, have been slower to rebound than stations in other parts of the area. 

  • The current last four Silver Line stations from Wiehle-Reston East to Tysons Corner have each reached about 32% of 2019 ridership levels.
  • Stations at the end of the Blue and Orange lines have performed similarly, with Franconia-Springfield reaching 35% of 2019 ridership, and Vienna getting to 28%.
  • For comparison, Glenmont at the end of the Red Line has reached 41% of pre-pandemic ridership. West Hyattsville, the fourth-to-last stop on the Green Line toward Greenbelt, has reached 52%.

D.C. Policy Center executive director Yesim Sayin Taylor tells Axios that the Washington region’s high concentration of workers who are able to do their jobs remotely has continued to make it even harder for Metro to rebound from pandemic losses. 

A Metro spokesperson tells Axios that the agency doesn’t have post-pandemic ridership projections, but continues to see the Silver Line extension as “an opportunity for growth.”

Zoom in: The Silver Line extension has multiple factors in its favor, including the rapidly growing Tysons area. Plus, riders will for the first time have access to Dulles using Metrorail. 

Senior Brookings Metro fellow Adie Tomer does note that having access to an airport by train can be a good regional marketing tool, but airports generally don’t attract nearly as many riders as other stations and lines. He says Washington residents use public transit much more than travelers who are here just visiting. 

  • Whether or not it’s successful in the short term, Tomer says he’s confident that the Silver Line extension will be successful in the long run. “Having rail service and having long-distance travel alternatives is vitally important,” he says of the health and growth of major metros.

Between the lines: The Silver Line extension has been in the works for over a decade. As Tomer puts it, “this train has left the station so long ago.” Those currently working for the agency, including new CEO Randy Clarke, will have to adapt to our new way of life and find ways to lure riders back. 

What’s next: The Silver Line could be further delayed. Without the return of more 7000-series cars, Clarke says the agency would either have to wait to open the new stations on that line or reduce service.

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