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With Work Still Left To Be Done, Silver Line Director Leaves Post

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The Silver Line is set to run through Tysons Corner.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
The Silver Line is set to run through Tysons Corner.

The executive director of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project commonly known as the Silver Line announced on Wednesday he is leaving the post he has held since 2009 to accept a position with a public transit agency.

Pat Nowakowski said he was not at liberty to reveal his destination but sought to assure the public his exit would not negatively affect final negotiations with Silver Line contractor Bechtel to finish the rail extension and hand it to Metro for final testing.

“I am one small part of a team. There is a whole team of people that are out there working on this project every day,” Nowakowski said in remarks to reporters.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s project leader said his new employer would announce his position, adding that he was recruited for the job over several months, timing his departure with the Silver Line’s near completion.

“It is more about when they need me at my new position than this position [at MWAA], but we have worked very closely with the project here to time these so that I am leaving when this project is nearing completion of Phase I and Phase II is well underway,” Nowakowski said.

So what about the Silver Line?

The current 15-day review period ends April 25, meaning MWAA has one more week to determine if Bechtel and its subcontractors have rectified the several problems that led to the rejection of their first submission of “substantial completion” in February.

On Wednesday airports authority leaders could say only they are “optimistic” and “hopeful” the contractors got it right this time. If approved, the Silver Line will be handed to Metro for the final phase of safety testing and workforce training. That process will take up to 90 days. The rail extension through Tysons Corner to Reston could open by mid-summer barring any further delays, but officials refuse to speculate on a timetable.

“This is obviously the second time we've gone through this,” Nowakowski said. “The first time we had some shortcomings. We have seen much improvement in the submission at this point in time, so we are very optimistic.”

MWAA board member Tom Davis, the former Virginia congressman appointed to the board to see the Silver Line through to completion, held out the possibility the review period could be extended past April 25 if all parties (MWAA, Metro, and Bechtel) are close to an agreement. “I’d like to keep in my pocket that if we have to extend this another two or three days to get it done, we are going to do it,” Davis said. “You don’t want to have to go through another submission.”

Davis also expressed optimism the Silver Line is close, but neither he nor anyone else associated with the project is willing to publicly state it will be accepted this time around.

“Because when you put a definite point and it is not met, you look bad,” Davis said.

Nowakowski declined to comment on any specific issues that may be holding up Silver Line acceptance, and officials made it clear that pointing fingers in public about who is to blame for the project’s delays — six months and counting — would be counter-productive.

New contract to repair trackside computers

One stubborn technical problem that will not hold up “substantial completion” is the reliability of trackside computers known as remote terminal units (RTUs) built by subcontractor Alstom Signaling, the company whose equipment is installed throughout Metro’s 100-mile rail system.

The MWAA board approved a new contract for Alstom to fully replace the Silver Line’s problematic RTU network — part of Metro’s Automatic Train Control system — after project leaders determined the current communications link will never reach the necessary reliability for smooth long-term operation. However, MWAA and Metro agree the rail extension can move ahead to safety certification and passenger service while the replacement work is ongoing.

“I understand that MWAA has worked with the contractor to significantly improve the performance of the current RTUs. While they're still not at the availability they need to be, which is 99.99 percent uptime, they are well above 90 percent now,” said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel after MWAA awarded the new contract to Alstom.

“We expect the existing RTUs will be in service for revenue service while MWAA advances replacement,” Stessel added. “But, as an additional step to ensure reliable service, we will have 24/7 staffing in the train control rooms along the Silver Line so that we can take local control should the current RTUs not perform.”

Replacement of the RTUs is expected to take one year.

Sort of good news for tolls on DTR (again)

Pending the approval of a large loan under the federal TIFIA program and with the coming $300 million commitment from Virginia, tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, currently covering about half the Silver Line’s costs, would not have to be increased until 2019, MWAA said.

Tolls have increased in each of the past two years to $3.50 for a full, one-way trip. Without the TIFIA loan, the same toll would jump to $6.75 by 2018 and $10.75 by 2023, according to MWAA figures.

The loan has no effect on the estimated $6 billion cost to build both phases of the Silver Line. It will lower the interest rate charged to MWAA as it pays down the debt on the money it will have borrowed to pay its contractors to construct the rail extension to Dulles Airport and beyond into Loudoun County.

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