Looking toward Greenbelt Yard.

Metro needs new railcars soon, but efforts to order new cars have hit a few bumps. MWAA, which is managing the Silver Line project, is objecting to costs, and Maryland’s cuts to capital spending could imperil the needed commissioning facility at Greenbelt. If Metro can’t buy and commission new cars, the Silver Line might not be able to open in 2013.

MWAA balks on railcar costs

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported on objections about railcar costs by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is building the Silver Line.

Before the line can open, WMATA needs 64 railcars to operate the segment. The first 64 railcars of the 7000 series will be paid for by the MWAA, but purchased by WMATA.

Additionally, Metro is purchasing 300 cars to replace the 1000 series. Because of the size of the order, Metro is getting a bulk discount. The cost for Metro’s additional railcars will be about $2.5 million per car.

The rub, as far as the Airports Authority is concerned, is that they’re being saddled with the design costs. This means that their cars will average $4 million apiece. Unfortunately, they only budgeted for $3 million per car, and they’re balking at the higher cost.

MWAA believes that the design costs should be spread evenly across the entire order, since the 7000-series will benefit the entire rail system and not just the Silver Line.

The Airports Authority says spreading the design costs evenly across the 64 railcars for Tysons, the 300 for 1000-series replacement, and the 64 cars for the Dulles/Loudoun extension would bring the average railcar price to $2.7 million. That would increase the cost to Metro by about $60 million, but would decrease the cost to MWAA by about $166 million.

Officials at MWAA say that unless Metro eliminates the $75 million increase in the overall price of the first 64 cars, they won’t okay the purchase.

If MWAA decides to go it alone on the purchase, they probably won’t end up getting a better deal, and they will certainly delay the arrival of the cars.

Commissioning facility delayed

Another rough patch for the 7000 series are delays to the Railcar Commissioning Facility. Because of the volume of railcars being purchased and the short timeframe, Metro needs to construct a commissioning facility.

This facility is expected to cost $60 million, and will be located at the Greenbelt Rail Yard. It will include a 2.25 mile test track between Greenbelt and College Park. It will allow WMATA to process 16-20 new railcars per month and will eliminate the need to single-track revenue trains while cars are being tested. The test track will run along the west side of the Green Line from Greenbelt Yard to Paint Branch Creek, just north of College Park Station. No new land will be needed for the commissioning facility or the test track.

Unfortunately, due to the inability or unwillingness of Maryland to commit to a new capital funding program, Metro is deferring the Commissioning Facility and other projects. This will severely hamper the ability of Metro to test and accept new railcars, and inconveniences passengers.

Without the facility, Metro will only be able to accept 8-12 railcars per month and riders on the Green Line will face single-tracking for long periods, although not at rush hour. With the facility, Metro said they could accept the full order of 748 7000 series cars in 5 years. Without it, only half as many cars can be accepted per month. That could mean that it would take a decade to commission the new fleet.

Delays due to the lack of a commissioning facility will keep new railcars from riding the rails. It will delay new cars for the Tysons extension and it will delay replacement of the aging 1000 series cars.

Delays could threaten Silver Line

Time is running short to order the new 7000 series cars for the Tysons extension of the Metro. Without fleet expansion, the line may not be able to open.

The railcars take time to manufacture and be tested. The 4 prototype cars are expected to arrive in Greenbelt in December 2012. The remaining 60 cars for Tysons are expected to begin arriving in Summer 2013. Without a commissioning facility, Metro will only be able to process 8-12 cars per month. Best case scenario (12 cars per month) means the 60 cars will be ready in November. Of course, Metro’s own schedule doesn’t call for the base order of 64 cars to be complete until April 2014.

With the Silver Line expected to open in December 2013, any delays could mean that not enough cars will be ready. The line can probably open with fewer than the full compliment of railcars initially, because it will take time for demand to increase, but the fleet does need to increase to some degree initially in order to keep from cannibalizing service on other lines.

Delays could crop up because of manufacturing or acceptance delays, or especially if WMAA goes it alone on the railcars. And that worst-case scenario could mean that even if the rail line is finished, opening could be delayed until enough railcars are made available.

This happened in Atlanta. The initial MARTA segment was supposed to open in December 1978, but the lack of railcars, which were delayed at the manufacturer, pushed the start of service back to June 1979. Even then, service was limited to only a few hours each day, with no weekend service.

This is the real threat facing the Silver Line. The region cannot afford to defer projects like the Commissioning Facility, nor can it afford squabbling over funding. All three of the jurisdictions need to step up to the plate and fund Metro.

And Metro needs to smooth feathers with MWAA. This hiccup over costs needs to be worked out as soon as possible. While the Silver Line has a contingency fund, this dispute is really about the equity of the bill, not the amount. And Maryland needs to fully fund Metro so that as new cars arrive in the area, they can be put into service with all haste.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Capitol Hill. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.