Photo by joelogon on Flickr.

The highly controversial and much anticipated Silver Line has its faults. But it has the potential to profoundly impact Washington area transportation well into the future.

Undoubtedly this new transit connection has some shortcomings. The elevated design through Tysons Corner will likely have a negative impact on walkability in that area. Its high price tag, well into the billions, could have been applied more economically to virtually blanket Northern Virginia in streetcars and light rail.

It will encourage more development in sprawling Loudoun County instead of areas closer to the regional core. And it will actually decrease Metro capacity on the Blue Line. These issues have long term repercussions that will impact transportation and development for decades. But it is not all bad.

Though I completely agree with Dan M’s assessment that the money for Phase II of the Silver Line could have been much better spent on other modes of transportation in Northern Virginia, I don’t believe it ever would have, at least not for a good long time.

The introduction of a new “unproven” (in Northern Virginia, at least) mode of transportation would not garner the political support needed for a multi-billion dollar investment. And that is unfortunate. Hopefully with the success of DC’s streetcars program, future transit fund appropriations will embrace light rail, BRT, and streetcars. For now, I consider it a victory that billions of transit dollars in Northern Virginia are being spent on something other than highway “improvements”.

It is likely the Silver Line will also have a major psychological impact that could garner more support for mass transit investment. In 2007, 24.7 million passengers passed through Dulles International Airport. It is, and for the foreseeable future will be, the primary gateway to the city.

For every traveler, transportation to or from the airport was in some sort of motor vehicle, including a very limited number of bus options. This means that for someone visiting DC for the first time, the first thing they experience when they arrive and the last thing they experience when they depart is a 25 mile drive down an expressway.

With the advent of the Silver Line, visitors to Washington and area travelers alike will be exposed to a greener alternative to reach the region’s primary air gateway. Area residents using the airport will be able to opt out of sitting in traffic, parking in a huge lot, trekking from the lot to the terminal, and leaving their automobile unattended for days at a time. Fewer visitors will feel the need to rent a car for their visit, thereby taking even more cars off of area highways.

Once a visitor gets on the Silver Line at Dulles, no further modal shift is necessary, versus, say, taking a light rail train from Dulles and then switching to Metro at Tysons Corner. Visitors who opt Metro for their journey from Dulles to DC will immediately be exposed to the Metro system, increasing their familiarity and comfort with using the train and improving the chances that it they will use it to get around town during their visit.

Furthermore, the Silver Line brings more psychological exposure to mass transit to a corridor that for decades has known nothing but cars and highways to get around. Though most of the outer Silver Line stations will serve primarily as park and ride stations, the presence of an alternative will be there. Suburban automobile sprawl development will not cease without an alternative present, and Loudoun and northern Fairfax counties will finally have that alternative.

Love it or hate it, the Silver Line is coming. Promoting its virtues as a welcome mat for DC and an alternative to driving on Northern Virginia’s clogged roads will certainly not fix any of the problems with it. The Silver Line, however, is a net positive for the region in spite of its issues. And when the first trains go rolling up the tracks towards Ashburn, the this will be an even better, more inviting region.

Born in DC and a lifelong resident of the area, Dave Murphy currently resides in the Rosedale neighborhood of Ward 7 where he coaches a championship youth football team in the DC DPR League. He is an Army veteran and a medically retired DoD geographic analyst.