Developing and Implementing a New Rail Line

May 23rd, 2011

With increasing fuel prices and a rebounding economy soon to increase transit demand and with the progress of the Metro’s Regional Transit System Plan, it is opportune to reflect on the time and effort necessary to develop and implement a new rail line, be it Metrorail, light rail or streetcar. An important time factor is the Federal procedures and evaluations for Federal funding, upon which most ‘major capital investments’ in rail transit are reliant. The Federal share can range from 30 to 50 percent of the total project cost. The two most recent Metrorail extensions – Blue Line to Largo Town Center and the Dulles Corridor Line to Wiehle Avenue Station – follow or exceed the experience across the nation of 10 to 12 years from start of alternatives analysis (AA) to start of revenue operations. The Maryland Transit Administration conducted the AA of the Blue Line extension in the early 1990s; the 3-mile extension opened in late 2004. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation conducted the AA (then, a Major Investment Study, MIS) of the Dulles Corridor extension in the mid-1990’s; the 11-mile extension to the Wiehle Avenue Station will open in late 2013, nearly twenty years later.

For both these heavy rail extensions and for the light rail and streetcar projects now under development, the original project delivery schedules were more compressed. For example, the Dulles Corridor Task Force recommended in 1999 that the Dulles Corridor extension be open through Tysons Corner by 2006. An explanation for the differences in original and actual schedules includes, but is not limited to, extended timeframes for the following:

  • Agreement among implementing, reviewing, and supporting agencies
  • Preparation and selection of new and revised build options
  • Extended Federal evaluation of project submissions

The table below is one version of the activities to develop and implement heavy rail project, such as a Metrorail extension, with and without Federal procedures and evaluations, the steps of which are depicted in the flow chart below. A streetcar project would have shorter timeframes for preliminary engineering, final design and construction, since the project would not involve bridges and other complex structures.  The Systems Planning & Project Identification activity generally commences with a region-wide transit planning, such as the Regional Transit System Plan, currently underway, and generates a program of recommended capital and operation improvements. These improvements and others outside the region-wide process may undergo feasibility studies and require a build-up of support, the timeframes for which are not reflected in the table.

Timeframes for Heavy Rail Project Delivery


Months With Federal

Months Without Federal

Systems Planning & Project Identification These activities precede the formal AA, but are not part of the timeframe count.
Agreements for Project Funding: Studies
Procurement: Consultant Contract
Alternatives Analysis [1] 18 – 24
Environmental Planning 18 – 24 12
Public Hearing[2] 3 – 5 3 – 5
Selection of the Locally Preferred Alternative 1 1
FTA: Approval to Enter Preliminary Engineering 3 – 6
Preliminary Engineering[3] 12 – 18 12
FTA: Approval to Enter Final Design 3 – 6
Agreements for Project Funding: Construction[2]
Final Design[4] 12 – 18 12
FTA: Full Funding Grant Agreement[5] 4 – 10
Right-of-Way Acquisition[6],[7] 6 – 12 6
Procurement: Construction Contract 6 – 9 6
Construction[8] 24 – 42 24 – 42
Start-Up and Testing 3 – 6 3
Start of Revenue Operations
Total Months

Total Years

113 – 181

9.4 – 15.1

79 – 99

6.6 – 8.3

Diagram of the New Starts federal funding program process, from the FTA website. Click for more information.

[1] Project sponsors may conduct alternatives analysis and environmental planning simultaneously.

[2] The additional two months relate to the requirements of the WMATA Compact and case law.

[3] The additional six months of preliminary engineering relate to documentation, other than engineering, to fulfill Federal requirements.

[4] The additional six months of final design relate to documentation, beyond engineering, to fulfill Federal requirements.

[5] The agreement process is highly variable; it involves reviews and actions by both FTA and Congress.

[6] This activity overlaps with others.

[7] The additional six months relates to the participation of the U.S. Department of Justice in the exercise of eminent domain by WMATA for heavy rail projects.

[8] The range of months relates to the complexity of construction for the project.

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  1. Randall M.
    May 24th, 2011 at 07:07 | #1

    Interesting. Could we please consider adding capacity to the core instead of lengthening the system at its edges? It just seems to be the next logical step.

  2. Rahul S.
    May 24th, 2011 at 11:20 | #2

    @Randall is right; Ideally, something that would activate River road, cross under the park, go crosstown through Wards 4 and 5, cross the Anacostia and then head south through Wards 7 and 8, crossing several lines and eventually going south along the river.

    Much of this area is low-density now, but would not have to remain so, and could bring economic development to the core outside of the current CBD, which is largely built up at this point.

  3. jnb
    May 25th, 2011 at 11:36 | #3

    It would be interesting to know how much less money a project would cost, too, without Federal involvement. If the Feds provide 50% of a $1 billion project, the local share is $500 million. But if the project cost significantly less than $1 billion without the strictures of the Federal process, then local governments could get new transit projects much quicker and more reliably without Federal funding for not that much more local expense.

    From a local real estate point of view, the difference between having certain project timing with local funding and uncertain timing dependent on the Federal funding process is huge.

  4. Nick
    May 25th, 2011 at 16:45 | #4

    Hey, how about this – we need to figure out a way to streamline this process and other, similar ones in this country. The fact that we spend 9.5 to 15 years to to build a single rail line (or other basic infrastructure project) is ridiculous, especially when all but 2-4 years is spent on bureaucracy and not actual construction. No wonder every project is astronomically expensive and our infrastructure is in such poor shape.

  5. Jim
    June 21st, 2011 at 15:01 | #5

    What though has been given to putting a station in at the new DHS headquarters. There will be 15,000 employees that will need to move in and out of that location twice a day.
    Depending on car size that could easily be 20 trains in the morning and 20 trains at night. Not counting the need for trips in and out of DC.

  6. Jon
    September 6th, 2011 at 11:40 | #6

    When is WMATA going to seriously look at building a separate tunnel from Rosslyn that would take either the blue, orange, or silver line through Georgetown? Why do we no longer have the visionaries and leaders like those who planned out the original 103 miles of metrorail???

  7. John M
    September 23rd, 2011 at 10:02 | #7

    For what it’s worth, I think it would be a great benefit for Metro to ask its riders where new lines outta be. To start the conversation, I’ve made a map with potential new lines (I’m sure you all have done the same), many of which use existing ROWs and would greatly expand Metro’s core capacity.

  8. AnnP
    November 18th, 2011 at 17:24 | #8

    I’d like to see a plan for metrorail in Fort Washington/Acokeek Maryland area or near the National Harbor. The residence only have one route to Washingtion and that is Indian Head Highway. The traffic is a mess during week days and Metro could gain much more revenue plus cut down on traffic going towards the Wilson Bridge.

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