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Metro will unveil the newest version of its rail map Thursday, featuring the soon-to-open Silver Line in Northern Virginia and addressing a challenge: getting people to ride a line many say they don’t know much about and one they aren’t certain they want to use.
The first phase of the Silver Line, which will stretch from East Falls Church to Reston, is expected to begin transporting riders early next year. Now, Metro has turned its focus to what its chief marketer calls “raising awareness” of the new, $6 billion rail line that eventually will run to Dulles International Airport and parts of Loudoun County.
Research among focus groups and from surveys conducted this year showed that only 45 to 55 percent of riders in the Washington region are aware of the rail addition, Metro said.
That leaves some transportation and land-use experts skeptical of whether — and when — the Silver Line will meet its ridership expectations. As one of the country’s most expensive transportation projects underway, the Silver Line is seen as an important test of whether drivers will abandon their cars and ride a transit line.
The Silver Line extension being built from East Falls Church will be 23 miles long when completed. The first phase is 11 miles and includes four new stations in Tysons Corner and one in Reston. Construction of the second phase, which will run to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County, is expected to start in mid-2014.
The Silver Line is expected to add 17,000 new riders to the Metro system on an average weekday. But those ridership figures assume that there’s “100 percent awareness” of the rail line “among potential customers,” officials said.
Many riders surveyed said they were “aware” of the Silver Line, but they added that they were confused about where the five new stations along the first part of the Silver Line are located. They were also confused about where the Silver Line ends. Many “wrongly believe it will serve Dulles Airport in the first phase,” according to a a presentation that is expected to be delivered to Metro’s board Thursday.
“I’m concerned about it, but it is not unusual,” Lynn Bowersox, assistant general manager of Metro’s customer service, communications and marketing, said of the confusion and lack of knowledge of the project. “People tend to tune in when they have time, a reason or specific interest in learning about a new product or service.”
Fairfax County officials said they have stepped up efforts this summer and have more plans this fall to get the word out at community events. Just under half of the Fairfax Connector bus routes are changing to get riders to the new Silver Line.
Learning how little riders know about the Silver Line has been “a wake-up call for a lot of us who eat and breathe [the Silver Line] every day that we need to put our best effort forward,” said Fairfax County planner Nick Perfili.
The unveiling of the redesigned Metro map, which shows where the Silver Line will run, is part of marketing the new rail line. It is the first time the iconic map has been completely redone since the Metro system opened 37 years ago. Metro hired Lance Wyman, a New York graphic designer who led the effort to design the original map, to do a makeover and show the new Silver Line.
The new map is expected to help clear up confusion for some riders who thought they would have to switch to an Orange Line train to get downtown from parts of Northern Virginia. They won’t.
“You can get a one-seat ride from Reston to Largo if you want,” Bowersox said, noting that the new map shows how the Orange, Blue and Silver lines will serve stations in the downtown area.
Metro said it has budgeted about $500,000 in this fiscal year to market the new rail line. It is also working on a Web site for the Silver Line, silverlinemetro.com, that will show riders what the new stations look like, where they are located, and how to get there by car and bus, as well as restaurants, businesses and shops near the stops.
Metro said it also plans to put more ads on trains and buses and in stations in the coming months touting the Silver Line. Metro officials said they are also working with dozens of businesses along the new rail line, including McLean-based Capital One, to encourage employees to use the line once it opens. Metro has launched a similar effort to attract shoppers and workers to the malls at Tysons Corner.
“In order for us to get riders to effectively try the service, they need to know about it,” Bowersox said.
A sticking point in selling the new service, however, is that there’s no official opening date.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority recently said it is eight weeks behind schedule in its plan to turn over the first part of the new rail line to Metro. Once Metro gets control of the Silver Line, it has to do its own testing before the line opens to riders.
Metro is planning an “inaugural ride” on the Silver Line for officials of various jurisdictions, business and community leaders, board members and the 10 Metro riders who win a contest that likely will be based on trivia about the Silver Line. Metro said it is still working on details of the contest.