DALLAS — Trains began rolling through northern Virginia Saturday on the first 11.7-mile segment of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's Silver Line rail extension funded with almost $3 billion of federal loans and bonds supported by tolls on the road to Washington Dulles International Airport.

The new segment is the largest expansion of the Washington Metrorail system and the first new color added to its map since the Green Line was inaugurated in 1991. The Silver Line segment, with its five new stations, extends the system's mileage by 10%.

The Silver Line project will be Metrorail's last expansion project unless more funding can be secured, said board chairman Tom Downs.

"The region as a whole is expected to add 1.5 million residents in the next 20 years, and a clear commitment to public transit is required to meet the demands on our transportation infrastructure," Downs said at the Silver Line opening ceremony.

The first segment stretches from a connection with Metrorail's Orange Line in Falls Church, Va., through Tyson's Corner to Reston. The project includes a 2,300-car parking garage, 64 new rail cars, and an expanded rail yard.

The final $2.7 billion segment will complete the link between Washington and Dulles and then terminate in suburban Loudoun County. The final segment is to be operational in 2018.

The Silver Line expansion is being financed and built by Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority using federal loans, revenue bonds supported by its Dulles Toll Road from Washington, and contributions from Loudoun and Fairfax counties in Virginia.

MWAA took over the toll road from Washington to the airport in 2008 under a 50-year agreement with the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The Silver Line segment was transferred by the airports authority to Metrorail for operational testing in late May. About 25,000 riders per day are expected after the first year of operation, and 86,000 daily riders by 2030 when the entire 23-mile line is in service.

The $3 billion in funding for the first 12 miles of the Silver Line includes $975 million of federal grants and assistance, $235 million from Virginia Department of Transportation, and more than $1.35 billion of bonds issued by MWAA.

MWAA completed the major portion of the funding of both Silver Line segments with late May's sale of $430 million of toll road revenue refunding bonds. The airports authority issued $963 million of toll revenue bonds in August 2009 for the project and another $342.6 million in May 2010.

MWAA's second-lien toll road revenue bonds are rated BBB-plus by Standard & Poor's and Baa1by Moody's Investors Service. The authority's $5 billion of senior-lien airport revenue bonds are rated A1 by Moody's and AA-minus by S&P.

A $1.9 billion low-interest loan, obtained for the Silver Line project through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, was approved in early May by the Transportation Department. The loan is the largest in TIFIA's history, eclipsing a $1.6 billion allocation to the New York State Thruway Authority for replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The loan included $1.3 billion to the airports authority and $275 million to Fairfax County and $200 million to Loudoun County for their share of the costs.

Moody's analyst Jennifer Diercksen said the TIFIA loan is credit positive for the counties because "government officials expect the Metrorail extension of the so-called Silver Line to spur additional economic development that will strengthen the counties' already sizable and diverse tax bases."

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