Arlington streetcar moves amid rising costs, controversy

Part 7 of 7 in the series Arlington Traffic Troubles

TRANSIT POLITICS: Though Columbia Pike is served by more than a dozen bus routes daily, Arlington officials want to dedicate a lane of traffic for a streetcar project, most recently priced at $560 million.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. — An opponent says it’s “a long way from being done,” but a controversial streetcar project with a ballooning $560 million price tag got another push from the Arlington County Board on Tuesday.

Rolling over objections from Independent board member John Vihstadt and Democrat Libby Garvey, the panel voted 3-2 to award a $26 million contract to HDR Engineering, Inc., for streetcars to serve Columbia Pike and Crystal City.

“The board majority is playing that old quiz show game ‘Beat the Clock’ — trying to rush the signing of contracts and agreements before the streetcar’s low popularity sinks even further, and before the Nov. 4 county board election,” said Vihstadt, who was elected on a streetcar-skeptic platform earlier this year.

Joe Warren, a member of the Arlington Transit Advisory Committee, called Tuesday’s action “outrageous,” and said he was surprised by the amount of funds authorized.

“The only amount that has been publicly revealed was about $8 million for design and engineering,” Warren told Watchdog.org.

NO GO: County Board member John Vihstadt won election opposing the streetcar venture he calls an “albatross.”

Vihstadt calls the 7.6-mile streetcar venture “a fiscal and transit albatross” that will clog streets and increase taxpayer debt, with guaranteed delays adding to the cost.

According to the county’s timeline, preliminary engineering work will not be done until the second quarter of 2016. Actual construction won’t begin until the second quarter of 2018, and service isn’t projected to start before the second quarter of 2020.

Alternatively, Vihstadt, a Washington, D.C., attorney, recommends a more flexible and less costly bus rapid transit (BRT) line along Columbia Pike. A BRT is already in use along the nearby Route 1 corridor.

“BRT can be implemented more quickly, at a fraction of the cost, with better regional connectivity, comparable capacity and economic development benefits, and with less disruption and inconvenience to residents, business and commuters alike than the streetcar,” said Vihstadt, whose seat is up for grabs in November.

Amid sharply rising costs for the streetcar — initially pegged at $246 million — the Arlington Taxpayers Association filed a Freedom of Information request for earlier engineering studies. The county countered with a charge of $20,858 for a copy.

“(The county) is suppressing information,” Warren said. “No one knows what the real costs are going to be,” noting that the location and expense of a maintenance facility has not been determined.

Warren also accused officials of misrepresenting streetcar passenger capacity as larger than seating in articulated buses.

According to the latest streetcar staff report, the engineering contract of $26,003,721 includes more than $5.3 million in “optional” tasks for public “outreach” materials and $2.7 million for “contingencies.”

Kenric Ward is chief of Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau. Contact him at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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