With the announcement of substantial completion on Metro’s Silver Line Phase 2 extension into Loudoun, a major construction project milestone, and test trains now running regularly on that track, the region’s leaders are looking toward a transit future in flux.
Loudoun Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), who chairs both the county board’s finance committee and the Metro board’s Finance and Capital Committee, on Dec. 14 gave his colleagues on the county committee a heads-up about Metro’s finances with federal relief bills scheduled to run out soon.
Revenues from passenger service dropped off precipitously during the pandemic, with the Fiscal Year 2021 Metro budget anticipating $677.8 million in revenue, but seeing only $102 million. Those numbers have started to climb back up but by Fiscal Year 2024 are only expected to reach $377.5 million, just over half the pre-pandemic figure. Ridership today remains down around 70%, Letourneau said.
“The DC market in particular has been really hard-hit, because so many Metrorail riders are federal workforce, and the federal workforce has not returned back to the office at all,” Letourneau said.
Those losses have been replaced by federal relief to the tune of more than $700 million a year, but that money will start to go away in Fiscal Year 2024, leaving Metro with an anticipated $519 million funding gap. The federal funding also came with strings—that Metro could not cut its workforce, keeping people employed but limiting the extent to which Metro could cut costs. On the other side of the equation, Virginia legislation prevents the state from increasing Virginia’s Metro payments by more than 3% a year.
Letourneau also said Metro may not ever go back to its pre-pandemic ridership.
“There really are sort of existential questions I think as a region we’re going to have grapple with—the whole transit world,” Letourneau said. “I’m of the belief that we are never going back to where we were. The notion of people commuting to the office and sitting in a cubicle five days a week is just not coming back now that everybody’s had a taste of life without doing that and the world has not ended. And frankly, there’s a lot of advantages to that—for family, for the environment, for a lot of things. So how does Metro then adjust to that?”
Happily, he said, Loudoun’s side of the fiscal picture is “a much, much rosier picture.”
Loudoun taxpayers will begin paying the county’s full share of Metro costs in Fiscal Year 2023, which begins July 2022, an estimated $5.4 million share. That comes from special real estate tax districts around Loudoun’s Metro stops, the gas tax, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. Property values in those tax districts have skyrocketed even compared to the rest of the county despite repeated Silver Line Phase 2 delays, growing 168% since 2013, around when Loudoun decided to join Metro, compared to 62% across the county, according to a county report.
Metro’s cheerleaders have portrayed the three new stops in Loudoun—one at Dulles Airport, and two along the Dulles Greenway at Route 606 and Route 772—as a game changer for the county. Loudoun Economic Development Business Retention Manager Chris Hunter compared the arrival of rail service to the construction of Dulles International Airport and the first internet peer exchange that eventually brought the data center industry to Loudoun.
Only one of those stops is expected to see residential and mixed-use development. The Dulles Airport stop is at the terminal, and the Route 606 or “Loudoun Gateway” station is close enough to the airport that county noise ordinances prohibit residential development in most of the area around it.
“Where Ashburn Station has tremendous potential for development around it and nearby, Loudoun Gateway station is the destination for parking to board the system station more than it is—you’re not going to see high rises going up around. It is in flight patterns, it’s in noise areas affected by its really close proximity to the flight patterns at the airport,” said Dulles CorridorMetrorailProject Communications Manager Marcia McAllister at the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Metro Monday meeting Dec. 13.
Before passenger service can begin in Loudoun, the independent Washington Metrorail Safety Commission must sign off.
On Thursday, Metro’s efforts to put its 7000-series cars back in service—pulled because of safety concerns—were dealt a setback. The independent Washington Metrorail Safety Commission ordered they be kept out of passenger service until Metro provides revisions to its plan to bring them back, requiring additional protections and internal oversights for inspections.