I love the Ballston Metro station. And that makes sense, given that I’m an unabashed Metro fanatic and Ballston has been my home station since I moved to the region in 1997. It’s a shining example of just how great a neighborhood can become when we build good transit and then use it to anchor retail, commerce, and housing.
With 11,520 average daily boardings in 2015, Ballston-MU (the station’s official name as of 1995) was ranked as the 17th-busiest of WMATA’s 91 stations, and the fifth-busiest in Virginia (behind Pentagon, Rosslyn, Pentagon City, and Crystal City). Ballston’s status as a major bus transfer station no doubt plays a factor in this high ridership: 13 Metrobus routes and seven Arlington Transit (ART) routes connect Ballston to the rest of the county, as well as to Alexandria, Fairfax, and even Georgetown and K Street via route 38B.
As detailed by Zachary Schrag in his seminal book The Great Society Subway, the portion of the Metro that now constitutes the Orange Line between Rosslyn and Ballston was originally supposed to run entirely in the median of I-66 (as it does from Ballston westward to Vienna), in order to speed commuters from Fairfax County into DC.
However, Arlington officials were able to convince Metro’s planners to reroute the Orange Line about a half mile south of I-66, in a subway to be built beneath the declining commercial corridors along Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive. By concentrating development around the new Metro stations in these areas, Arlington would be able to massively grow its population and job market in the coming decades without increasing automobile traffic.
Ballston in the 1970s, with station entrance circled in red. Note the bus bays located on the current site of Ballston Metro Center, as well as the still-existing IHOP. Photo courtesy Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development, with addition by the author.
As the western end of this new “Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor,” Ballston was envisioned as the shopping and retail hub of the county. The station was to be located just a few blocks from Parkington Shopping Center (now the redeveloping Ballston Common Mall), and would eventually be connected to the mall by a series of skybridges. The entrance is also just a few blocks from Marymount University’s “Blue Goose” building, which also recently underwent redevelopment.
The station was originally designated as “Glebe Road” in planning documents, but it was renamed to Ballston before it opened. Glebe Road is a major north-south arterial in Arlington that is served by numerous buses connecting to Ballston, and the station lies just east of Glebe’s intersection with Fairfax Drive.
The Orange Line used to end at Ballston, even though that wasn’t ideal
Ballston station opened on December 1, 1979, as the western terminus of the new Orange Line. The opening coincided with the completion of the Court House, Clarendon, and Virginia Square stations west of Rosslyn. From its opening until the western extension to Vienna opened in June 1986, Ballston was the western terminus of the Orange Line.
Interestingly, Ballston was one of the only terminal stations in the history of the Metro system to have side platforms. This would present several difficulties from an operational standpoint, as terminal stations are almost always built with island platforms so that trains can berth at either track, and customers do not have to wait on the mezzanine to see which platform their train will service.
(The Orange Line had technically commenced operations a year earlier when the extension to New Carrollton opened, but the extension to Ballston was the first time that it operated as a completely separate service from the Blue Line. See our evolution of Metrorail animation for an explanation of this discrepancy.)
Commuters at Ballston station shortly after it opened in 1979. Photo courtesy of DC Public Library, Star Collection.
When the station first opened, the Ballston area still mainly consisted of auto body shops and empty lots. The nearest major attraction, the 1950s-era Parkington Shopping Center, had fallen into decline and would not be renovated and reopened as Ballston Common until 1986.
Development from the 1980s onward
Ridership at Ballston declined steeply after the Orange Line was extended westward to Vienna in 1986, falling from 11,300 to 8,100 daily boardings over the course of a year. However, passenger volumes gradually increased over the coming decades as the area welcomed new development and an influx of residents, and the station was transformed into the focal point of a wonderfully walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood.
Plans for the “Ballston Metro Center” complex were unveiled in 1985, and the project was completed in 1989. The building is directly adjacent to the Metro entrance (protected from the elements by one of Metro’s first escalator canopies), and contains 300,000 square feet of office and retail space, as well as a Hilton hotel and 320 condominiums. New pedestrian bridges provided direct connections to Ballston Common Mall and the headquarters of the National Science Foundation.
Ballston was renamed to Ballston-MU in December 1995, to recognize the nearby Marymount University facilities on Fairfax Drive. Silver Line service to Ballston began on July 26, 2014, when that line began operating between Wiehle-Reston East and Largo Town Center.
Future plans for the station include a second entrance at North Fairfax Drive and Vermont Street, in order to better serve new development near the intersection of N. Fairfax and Glebe Road. The station will also see increased service from several ART bus routes under the recommendations put forward in Arlington’s new Transit Development Plan, in order to foster connections between numerous local routes serving the County.
Today, Ballston station continues to drive development in the surrounding neighborhood, with almost a dozen transit-oriented development projects in the pipeline. It remains the busiest Metro station west of Rosslyn, and ridership should only continue to rise with the addition of new TOD and bolstered bus service. Ballston-MU shows the power that rapid transit can have when its transformative development potential is fully realized, and I’m proud to call it my home station.
Do you live or work near Ballston? How has Metro changed your neighborhood for the better?