25 March 2013

Arlington County Super Stop Super Costly

The first of a string of 24 Super Stops for Arlington (VA) opened on March 11th at the intersection of Columbia Pike at Walter Reed Drive.  Construction on this bus shelter began in September 2011 and only recently was completed.

Construction took 18 months longer than anticipated because of lengthy environmental impact statements. 

This shelter  is supposed to have room for ten to 15 commuters in a lit and heated shelter that  provides real time electronic and printed schedules as well as future ticketing for the estimated 16,000 commuters a day.   This first Super Station is thought to be perfectly positioned to promote ethnic restaurants as well as a fledgling night life.  

This little construction project only cost a cool $1 Million..  In fact, upon hearing the cost for the Super Station, one incensed citizen exclaimed “What? That’s ridiculous. From a citizen, from a voter, whoever put that budget through needs to get their butt canned. It’s an outrage.”

This new super costly Super station  does not even provide full protection against the elements.  Arlington County Board Member Libby Garvey (D) observed that:

[The bus shelter is] pretty, but I was struck by the fact that if it’s pouring rain, I’m going to get wet, and if it’s cold, the wind is going to be blowing on me. It doesn’t seem to be a shelter. It doesn’t really shelter you very much . . . you can get pretty soaked in two minutes. 

Anticipating the public protest over the cost of the prototype Super Station, Arlington County officials proclaimed that the bus stop was an investment in the future.  The Walter Reed stop is located near where developers hope to erect new higher density housing units. Many of the stops are slated to also accommodate a proposed $250 million streetcar system on Columbia Pike between Fairfax County and the Pentagon. 

The cost breakdown for the prototype Walter Reed Super Station was $575,000 in construction costs and $440,000 for construction management and special inspections.  Hereafter, Arlington County is taking over construction and it is hoped that construction time will be drastically reduced.

Arlington County Environment Services spokeswoman Whalen McDonald insisted that: “The costs will be greatly reduced with future stops moving forward, as the construction costs for this prototype included a number of first time design and set-up costs.”  Arlington County has budgeted $20.8 Million to do the remaining 23 stations for an estimated $904,000 a Super Stop.  While a 10% projected savings is a good start, it still seems like costly white elephant. 

 Arlington County taxpayers only paid $200,000 of the costs, with the rest of the money coming from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Federal government funding.   The nascent Columbia Pike street car project is dependent on obtaining 30% of the costs from the largess of American taxpayers. 

Perhaps progressive thinking Arlington County planners were following Portland’s vanguard example of creating “A city that works” through extensive transit networks.  Alas, Portland is struggling under the financial burden of running and maintaining these top rate transit options, yet they had no higher ridership than in Los Angeles (even with free rides in the downtown core).  Aside from the glistening steel of Super Stops, municipalities will have to contend with powerful public union contracts that in Portland allow a transit worker to retire at age 55 with ten years on the job with full medical benefits, no deductible, no employee contribution and co-pays of just $5.  

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R-VA) has been hesitant to sign the road funding bill because of taxes and equity issues.  The pending roads legislation would replace the current gas tax with a wholesale gas tax while raising the sales tax, the hotel tax and purchases of new automobiles.  Aside from raising the tax burden, there are concerns that some jurisdictions get a free ride or more projects.  This consternation could result in the future reallocation of resources, sticking localities with the bill.  

One of the major reasons that some states rejected the free money from President Obama’s stimulus earmarked for High Speed Rail was the provision that if ridership did not reach desired goals, the jurisdictions would have to repay Uncle Sam for the free money. 

While government officials should be commended for forward thinking, they must be certain that their thinking outside of the box will be embraced by their constituents, that the project is not pork barrel crony capitalism and that the future funding for running and maintaining these services do not break the backs of their taxpayers.  The Portland Oregon paradigm of cozy construction contracts, inflated operating expenses from gilded municipal union contracts and  uncertain external funding should offer cause for pause. 

h/t: Arlington Now
      Washington Post

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