In retrospect, Silver Line cost-saving measures might not have been a good idea

Michael Dranove Tysons Update

Virginia officials were adamant about implementing cost cutting measures back in 2012 when they were planning construction on Phase II of the Silver Line. Phase I had cost nearly $3 billion, some $226 million over budget, and Virginia officials balked when they learned that Phase II was estimated to cost some $3.8 billion. At the time, Governor Bob McDonnell insisted that pro-union clauses be taken out of the construction plans, and that the Dulles International Airport station be constructed above ground, rather than pursuing an underground station option which would have been more expensive, but also more convenient for passengers. In the end, the project went forward with a price tag of $2.7 billion.

In hindsight, given the number of setbacks during Phase II’s construction, these cost-cutting measures may not have been a good idea.

The project suffered a major setback in 2015, when cracks were found in the girders supposed to support the tracks leading to the above ground Dulles stop. At the time, Charles Stark, executive director of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project, claimed that the cracks were little more than a, “hiccup.” However, they would prove to be merely the first in a series of setbacks.

Last summer, it was revealed that over the course of at least three years the contractors Universal Concrete had provided 1,500 flawed concrete panels to 5 of the 6 Phase II stations. In order to avoid having to replace the panels altogether, workers now need to go back and treat all installed panels with a sealant. Capitol Rail Constructors, the primary contractors for Phase II, claim that if treated with sealant every 10 years for the next 100 years the panels can be maintained without requiring them to be replaced. However, David Allison of the Baltimore-Washington Laborers’ District Council believes all 1,500 of the panels will need to be replaced.

Another setback for construction came in December, 2018, when officials admitted that more than 400 concrete rail ties installed at track crossovers along Phase II may cause trains to tilt outwards. The ties are 12 to 14 feet long and weigh more than 1,000 pounds each, it will be no small feat to replace them.

Phase II is slated to complete in 2020, 13 months behind schedule, but with all the recent setbacks it’s not clear that this timeline can be met. In all, one wonders what the project would have looked like if the government had been willing to spend more at its outset.