A ride decades in the making: Metro from Dulles

Arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport early Saturday morning was nothing like any of the dozens, maybe hundreds of times I’ve landed at IAD over the past 30 years and change: I walked to a Metro stop at the airport and took the train home, no bus connection needed.

Photo taken from a Silver Line train at Dulles shows the station sign, with IAD's main terminal just visible in the background.

Tuesday’s opening of the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line has been justified grounds for local celebration after years of local angst over schedule slips and cost overruns (even if, by average U.S. transit-construction costs, it can look like we stole the line).

But the debut of a one-seat rail link between our downtown and our international airport–a traveler-friendly feature in some U.S. cities and in many more outside the country–should be even more welcome for Washingtonians old enough to remember 20th-century transit options to Dulles.

When I first started making my acquaintance with IAD, Dulles advertised only one such route: the “Washington Flyer Coach” bus that ran every 30 minutes between the West Falls Church Metro station and the airport, at a cost of $9 one-way or $16 roundtrip that later became $10 one-way or $18 roundtrip. That was so bad that it made “can you give me a lift to Dulles?” a routine test of D.C.-area friendship. It was so inadequate that Metro adding the much cheaper 5A bus in December of 2000–which ran from L’Enfant Plaza and Rosslyn with an intermediate stop in Herndon but only did so once an hour–represented a serious improvement.

But it took having phase one of the Silver Line open in 2014, after local backers overcame such obstacles as the George W. Bush administration’s rail-skeptical Department of Transportation, to make “National or Dulles?” less of a dumb question. The Metro extension’s opening reduced my IAD transit timing from Arlington to an hour and change, factoring in a transfer at the Wiehle-Reston East station to a $5 airport-express bus or a free-with-transfer but much slower Fairfax Connector route.

Yet every time I had to sit around the bus level of that station’s garage and breathe its polluted air, I could only wish that the rest of the line would get past the concrete-drying stage.

Four years later than once estimated, that’s finally happened.

So after a short walk Saturday morning from the terminal to the station–maybe five minutes with stops to take photos–I had to celebrate by taking the Silver Line in the wrong direction to see all of it. I let a train to D.C. go by and instead boarded one to the Silver Line’s Ashburn terminus in Loudoun County.

That neighborhood of the county that in 2012 barely voted to stay in the Silver Line project is now the farthest place Metro reaches from the center of D.C. And as development around the station continues, it now has a chance to follow the path of other Metro neighborhoods and become a more pedestrian-friendly spot–or at least one where cost-conscious travelers don’t have to ask friends to give them a lift to Dulles.

So sick of Silver Line schedule slips

My least favorite genre of local transportation story, by an overwhelming margin, is reports of delays in the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and beyond. Over the past few months, I’ve let myself grow optimistic that this wait for a one-seat international-airport ride would end–and then this week served up a new round of gut-punch news about the project’s long-anticipated entry into revenue service.

Thursday, Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority general manager Paul Wiedefeld used the agency’s board meeting to announce a new problem: incorrectly sealed joint boots connecting third rails to their power supply. It’s sufficiently irritating that these cable-connector assemblies–a basic part of the system that you can easily identify from a train, given that they look like giant orange hair dryers–were not installed right, pushing the extension’s opening into, maybe, July.

But it’s worse that Metro and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the agency overseeing the construction, apparently knew about this snafu for months but did not see fit to loop in the taxpaying public. To put this more directly: When WMATA and MWAA posted presentations earlier this month about Silver Line progress that didn’t mention this hangup, they lied.

And this development follows a long series of dashed deadline hopes.

In 2014, months after the first phase of the Silver Line had opened, this expansion was projected to open in 2018. A year later, extensive design changes had pushed that timeframe out to sometime in 2020. That estimate held through discoveries in 2018 and 2019 of such problems as defective concrete panels, incorrectly installed railroad ties and flaws in fixes for those concrete panels. But then issues with the train-control system found in 2020 yielded a revised estimate of 2021 that then evaporated as fixes for them dragged on into the summer of 2021.

MWAA declaring “substantial completion” for the Silver Line’s tracks and stations in November, followed by it reaching the same milestone in December for the extension’s rail yard, was supposed to put this extension officially in the home stretch. Instead, these two agencies have found new ways to prolong the punch-list work needed before Metro can take control of the line and then, after some 90 days of its own testing, open the faregates.

I am among the less-inconvenienced stakeholders. I don’t commute to Reston or Herndon and only lose an extra 15 or 20 minutes and $5 on each trip to IAD by having to transfer to MWAA’s Silver Line Express bus at the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station–not that every time I’m waiting for that bus, I don’t think that a completed Silver Line could have already whisked me to the airport.

But the larger picture is that $2.778 billion worth of infrastructure continues to sit idle while MWAA and WMATA point to the other party (or the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, which must provide a separate sign-off) as the reason for the latest delay. I don’t perceive any urgency at either agency’s leadership to put this asset into service–although at this point I mostly blame Metro, since I see the same feckless lack of initiative in the transit agency’s prolonged inability to get its 7000-series trains back into service.

It’s a disgraceful failure of project management all around, and only one thing eases the embarrassment factor for my city: the far more horrific cost and schedule overruns afflicting New York’s transit projects.

National or Dulles? Yes.

SAN FRANCISCO—I took a plane from Dulles International Airport to here on Wednesday, and today I’ll fly home to National Airport. That is apparently an increasingly unfashionable choice.

Headlines like “Dulles International Airport struggles to find its footing” and “So how do you fix a problem like Dulles?” understate how unpopular Dulles has become compared to National. It may not be the airport that Washingtonians love to hate. But it is certainly the airport we no longer have to use.

National Hall with flagThe reason: the exemptions granted by the government to National’s “perimeter rule” banning flights to anywhere more than 1,250 miles away, originally put in place to protect a market for D.C.’s larger airport. Flying here and to other major West Coast destinations no longer requires trekking out to Dulles or connecting somewhere in between.

In my case, that’s meant that all of my family’s travel to see my in-laws in the Bay Area has moved to the DCA-SFO nonstop United launched in 2012, along with many of my work trips to here. National is only 10 to 15 minutes away by cab, and I’ve done the Metro commute in 35 minutes door-to-door. I’ve even walked from National to places in Crystal City. The main hall is a beautiful work of architecture (especially if you remember the Interim Terminal), and the views from the plane taking off or landing are spectacular.

But the price of convenience can be flexibility. There are two nonstops to SFO from DCA, while United alone has 10 nonstops between Dulles and SFO on this coming Monday. (Virgin America has another three nonstops; its useless frequent-flyer program and the lack of  D.C.-S.F. nonstops from anybody else helps explain why I spend so much time on United.) On this trip, a 12:39 departure out of IAD let me sleep in until a normal time and then walk my daughter to pre-school.

Lincoln Memorial River Visual viewAnd for international travel, Dulles is obvious. I do not want a flight to Europe hanging on the odds of a hop to Newark or another East Coast hub not getting delayed or canceled, and working around that by booking an hours-long connection in EWR or elsewhere is not my idea of fun. If I have to connect, I’d rather do that in the EU, where the lounges are worlds better.

Getting to Dulles, in turn, has gotten easier with the advent of Metro’s Silver Line and more frequent Silver Line Express bus service from the Wiehle-Reston East station. My trip out Wednesday ran an hour and 4 minutes and involved zero stress about traffic or parking. I can deal with that; it’s not much longer than the ride to SFO on BART (with longer headways) or to O’Hare via CTA, and it should get a few minutes shorter whenever they finally finish phase two of the project.

That leaves United’s miserable C/D concourse at Dulles–among the worst airport facilities in America, with too few windows and not enough space. I have wanted to apologize to travelers on behalf of the Washington area when I see how packed it gets before the evening bank of transatlantic flights. Any replacement for it seems years off, even as United has been upgrading its other hubs.

Dulles main terminalBut I have found a solution to that, and you can too if you have Star Alliance gold status: the Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the B concourse, steps from the Aerotrain station next to gate B51. In the afternoon and evening it’s got a cold and hot buffet and a full open bar, and those things can take a lot of the sting out of flying out of the dump that is the C/D concourse.

Lufthansa doesn’t mind if you’re on a domestic itinerary, and when you’re done you can reach the C concourse in 15 minutes by taking the Aerotrain back to the main terminal (you’ll still be airside), then staying on as it stops under the A concourse and then concludes next to C. If your flight’s at one of the D gates, you’ll have to switch the mobile lounge at the main terminal; budget a few more minutes and enjoy the view of airplanes on the way.

Dulles gate B51 viewI’m not going to pretend that my travel choices work for everybody, especially for people whose possibly saner allocation of travel funds leaves them without any elite frequent-flyer status. It may not work even if you are a frequent traveler; a friend with 1K status on United got fed up with his upgrades never clearing, switched his business to American and now rarely sees the inside of Dulles.

But I am saying that the “Dulles is the worst ever!” storyline is a little ridiculous, and so are all the ideas you see in comments about this airport suggesting we should expand National’s runways into the Potomac and close Dulles. You know what? While I’m at it, I want somebody to bring the Concorde back so I can fly supersonic across the pond.

Back in the real world, these are the two airports in my life. I might as well use them effectively.

The trade-off of travel

I’m in the middle of an unprecedented amount of travel. Two weeks ago, I flew out to L.A. to give a talk at an Edmunds.com conference; tonight, I’m flying to Berlin to cover the IFA consumer-electronics show there; two Sundays from now, I’m off to San Francisco for TechCrunch Disrupt; a week and a half after that, the Online News Association’s annual conference takes place in the same city; one week later, the Demo conference happens in Santa Clara.

I feel tired just reading the preceding sentence. In a normal month, I might have one trip out of town, certainly none requiring my passport.

I have business reasons for all this flying back and forth. I’ve never gone to some of these events before and would like to learn what I’ve missed; I expect to see interesting products debuted and demoed at them; they should represent good networking opportunities for me; at least for this year, I can afford the expense.

(The IFA trip is largely subsidized: The organizers have a pot of money set aside to bring some U.S. journalists there, with no requirement that I can discern to cover a particular vendor or technology. My regular editors were okay with that.)

But I have seriously mixed emotions every time I start to pack.

I hate the part of travel where I have to tear myself away from my lovely wife and our bubbly two-year-old. That dread often sets in not one but two nights before a departure, and it hasn’t gotten that much easier since my first business trip as a dad.

But I like travel itself–seeing the ground fall away from the wing at takeoff and then draw near again as we settle onto the runway, then finding my way around some new part of the world–and that allows the gloom to lift once I reach the airport. (Especially if it’s my beloved National Airport instead of, say, United’s grim C/D concourse at Dulles.)

The other part of traveling as a parent is the spouse debt I run up every time my lovely wife has to care for our bubbly two-year-old solo–something I have done for all of maybe four nights myself. I try to even the balance by setting aside a few nights’ worth of dinner in the fridge and freezer before I head out, but I know I couldn’t do this without the support of my family. And I know how fantastic it will be to come home to them this Sunday afternoon.