Silver Line is already reshaping Fairfax, Loudoun counties | Crain's Washington D.C.

Silver Line is already reshaping Fairfax, Loudoun counties

  • An artist's rendering depicts the Silver Line's Dulles International Airport station, which is expected to be completed in 2019. | Photo courtesy of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project

    An artist's rendering depicts the Silver Line's Dulles International Airport station, which is expected to be completed in 2019. | Photo courtesy of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project

  • This map shows the path of the Silver Line will take once it is fully complete. | Image via Airport Authority presentation

It will be more than two years before the Washington Metro’s Silver Line is completed, but the $6 billion, 23.1-mile project already has brought major changes to Virginia's Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

Though the second half of the line is still under construction, a large transit-oriented development is underway at the terminus in Ashburn, with plans for hundreds of new apartments plus retail and office space. In Fairfax County, meanwhile, mixed-use communities are being developed at the five stations already completed during the first phase of Silver Line construction.

Fairfax County Economic Development CEO Jerry Gordon said he predicts that within a generation, the number of jobs in the area will grow from 100,000 now to 200,000 and the number of residents will skyrocket from 20,000 to 100,000, thanks to zoning changes allowing for unlimited densities within a quarter-mile of the train stations. Whereas buildings used to be limited to 17 or 18 stories, the community now has several 30-story structures soaring 400 feet, with more in the pipeline.

“Right now there’s a lot of vacancy because they’re brand new and they were built quickly because money is cheap,” Gordon said.

“In the first few years of [Silver Line] operations, we have seen one major company come to Tysons Corner [satellite communications provider Intelsat] specifically because of the rail service and one company stay and consolidate [major event software manager Cvent] because of it,” he said, noting that Tysons Corner is the center point between the Arlington/Washington area and Dulles International Airport.

The Silver Line is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the country and will bring rail service to Loudoun County for the first time. It initially was supposed to be completed in 2018 but a series of design changes mandated by federal and state requirements for storm water management and the discovery of granite in the bedrock requiring hand digging forced delays. Though the first phase of the silver line has been up and running since 2014, the second phase, which extends 11.4 miles from Reston to Ashburn, isn’t expected to be running until mid-2020.

The $2.7 billion second phase of Silver Line construction—the tracks and stations from Reston to Dulles International Airport and beyond—is at least a year behind and $95 million more costly than initially projected, with the extra money to come from a $551.5 million contingency fund.

Marcia McAllister, communications manager for the Dulles Corridor Metro Rail Project, said work on the second phase is about 58 percent completed, with track already laid along much of the length and the major components in place for the Dulles station, which will sit in the air above the airport.

“We anticipate construction to be completed in 2019. Then we’ll turn it over to the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority,” which will run about six months of tests, McAllister said.

The first phase has five stations, one in Reston and four in Tysons Corner. The second phase includes six stations, four in Fairfax County, including the airport, and two in Loudoun County. There also will be a 90-acre rail yard on airport property, the largest in the Metro’s system.

Much of the line runs between the Dulles Access and Dulles Toll roads and then picks up the Dulles Greenway west of the airport. Once in Loudoun County, the line terminates at Ashburn Village Boulevard, about 30 miles northwest of Washington.

Tony Howard, president and CEO of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, called the Silver Line a game-changer for the county since the route runs through undeveloped land, opening the way for considerable economic growth. So far, though, there are no plans to extend the line beyond Ashburn, and McAllister said the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is building the Silver Line, has no interest in extending it.

Comstock Partners, for one, isn’t waiting for the second phaseto be finished.

The company saw the potential early, changing plans to build 20 to 30 luxury, single-family homes on land just beyond the terminus in Ashburn to Loudoun Station, a higher-density, mixed use development that eventually will include high rises and low rises, along with office space, parks, entertainment venues and retail shopping.

“This was green field. It was big old farm land,” said Maggie Parker, a spokeswoman for Comstock. “Now it’s turning into a lovely little urban destination. It sits right at the edge of the gorgeous rural heaven that is western Loudoun County and connects to the footprint of the industrial east. Really, it’s a link between east and west.”

Parker said construction is already complete on the first phase of Loudoun Station. That phase includes 437 apartments in four- and five-story structures, occupied by about 1,000 residents, 50,000 square feet of office space, an 11-screen movie theater and 70,000 square feet of retail. The second phase, which is expected to be finished in 2019, will add 240 more apartments, more retail and a 1,500-space parking garage for Silver Line commuters.

The third and fourth phases of construction are expected to include high rises and be much denser.

“The more people commuting happily, the more successful the business and the more energized the environment,” Parker said. “It would be terrific to add more land to Loudoun Station.”

Comstock has some experience in this area. It built a similar development in Reston when construction began on the Silver Line, starting with a 1 million square-foot commuter garage.

“The Metro lends a whole new vitality [to an area],” Parker said, noting the Reston garage had to be built before the residential and commercial aspects of that project so it would be ready by the time trains began rolling.

“The Silver Line is changing the face of the areas adjacent to it. It’s driving economic development,” Parker continued. “It’s fascinating to look at it from the air. It sits one and a half blocks of a kind of river that runs through the community. It runs along the highway [the Dulles toll road], which sort of cradles the rail line.”

Howard, of the Loudoun County chamber, estimates that 85 percent of all commercial dollars in the area are being invested within a half-mile of a Metro rail station.

“It’s the only game in town. It’s a great boost to commercial real estate and land use,” he said.

Loudoun County is among the most affluent in the country and hosts more data centers and fiber optics than anywhere else, with 70 percent of worldwide internet traffic passing through the county, according to the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development. That fiber was installed by the likes of AOL, UUnet and MCI, which now are part of Verizon. The county also has a number of other tech industry assets but is trying to grow commercial investment to make the economy more diverse.

“One of the trends nationwide is people want to live in places that tend to their daily needs. They want a walkable environment, mixed-use communities so they don’t have to be reliant on a car,” Howard said. “Though Loudoun County has been successful, it doesn’t have a concentration of mixed-use communities. The ones we have now are dependent on auto traffic.”

As the Silver Line snakes its way through the region, however, that picture may be about to change.

“What Metro can do is get people back and forth,” he said. “Workers and employers are finding that very attractive.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that construction has already begun on the second half of the line.

September 15, 2017 - 4:30pm