Pandemic rider drop creates path to speed Silver Line extension work

Silver Line tracks
A view of the Metro Silver Line track looking toward the Dulles International Airport control tower. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)

Stay-home orders, and progress on software safety concerns, could help speed up work on the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport, since Metro now appears to be open to a complete multiweek shutdown of the Wiehle-Reston East station.

Metro, which will run the extension, and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is responsible for building it, now have documentation in hand and plan to have joint meetings next week to resolve any remaining issues so that testing can move forward, Airports Authority Vice President Charles Stark said Wednesday.

“The best part of that situation is that due to the extreme lack of ridership at Wiehle Ave., the ridership is down to approximately 350 people a day. WMATA is favorably looking at doing a complete shutdown for two to three weeks instead of 15 to 16 weekend shutdowns. This will really increase the efficiency of the testing and get it done much earlier in the project,” Stark said.

Under the latest schedules before this potential agreement, the several month process of testing the connections between the new stations and the existing ones would have pushed substantial completion of the new line into March 2021, the contractor building the line had said.

Now, the substantial completion date could come much sooner.

Metro has approved fixes to one crossover where trains switch from one track to another, and all other similar locations on the main tracks will now get fixes to remove nonstandard equipment.

The Horsepen Run crossover was approved, even with a few areas slightly outside official construction standards by about 1/16 of an inch.

In the rail yard, there are problems with the car maintenance lifts being out of sync, and work continues to fix rail alignment issues in shops and to address track problems. Problems also remain with surge arresters and insulated joints. Rail cars arrived in the yard for the first time on March 23.

Still, an initial test of automated information management systems failed April 2. Changes have been made, and another attempt to control systems from Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center is planned April 23.

The contractor building the rail yard projects it will be substantially finished this fall.

Though Metro appears open to letting the Airports Authority and its contractors speed up work during the low ridership and service levels of the COVID-19 pandemic, Metro itself has been more cautious about expanding track work elsewhere in the system due to concerns about worker safety and availability.

The Airports Authority is now requiring face coverings for all workers and contractors on its projects.

There have been a handful of people who had to quarantine or isolate due to potential exposures, and Stark said one Metro employee working on Silver Line issues tested positive.

“But, basically, we are continuing almost unimpeded,” Stark said.

The Airports Authority is also taking advantage of reduced air travel at Reagan National Airport to accelerate major construction projects there.

Significantly more work on new security checkpoints and the new concourse that will replace Gate 35X is being done during the day and, in some cases, work is being done on more days of the week.

The outer roadway on the baggage claim level for Terminal B/C is now closed around the clock, with all traffic directed through two lanes normally reserved only for taxicabs.

Changes such as those are allowing steel erection for the security checkpoints to move more quickly, which the Airports Authority believes will at least partly make up for earlier schedule delays.

Officially, completion is forecast now for late 2021, but that is likely to advance to mid-2021 or earlier.

If the security checkpoints can open by July 2021, they could open at the same time as the new concourse.

The accelerated steel erection for the security checkpoints could also mean that the roads outside Terminal B/C fully reopen to drivers sooner than the currently projected date this August.

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