Arlington debate is proxy for streetcar

Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey’s attempt to slow down the board’s adoption of an additional method of financing transportation projects put a three-hour speed bump in the county’s path Monday night, but failed to stop its passage.

In a sometimes-contentious, painstaking, page-by-page parsing of a 33-page procurement document, Garvey argued that allowing the use of the Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995 could allow single-source bids that might be rushed through normal procedures, resulting in higher costs.

The four other board members, all of whom voted to adopt the guidelines, said they put extra limitations on the PPTA to encourage competition and require oversight by the board.

But what the debate was really about was the Columbia Pike streetcar project.

Garvey repeatedly turned to the streetcar project as an example of a big, complex project that a single vendor might seize control of by making an unsolicited bid, and other firms might not have sufficient time to mount competing bids.

Other board members and administrators said that was highly unlikely because of the size of the project. They also noted that the board could require a longer time that would allow competitors to come up with alternative bids.

“We are one vote away from awarding a contract for the streetcar,” Garvey said.

Garvey, who won a special election last March to the board and was reelected in November by billing herself as an “independent voice” for the all-Democratic board, initially waffled on her opinion of the Columbia Pike streetcar project. In the spring election, she called for more study. She abstained from a key vote in July in which the rest of the board endorsed the streetcar line. In September, she decided she supports a bus rapid transit system rather than the streetcar.

Garvey was not alone in her argument. Among the 13 residents who spoke on it Monday night, retired transportation attorney Peter Rousselot, who was chairman of the Arlington Democratic Committee, also urged a delay and further stiffening of requirements for private bidders.

“The process you have followed so far concerning these very complex guidelines is not consistent with the Arlington way,” he said. "What's the rush?”

Last week, in an attempt to delay the adoption of the PPTA, which might be used for all or part of the streetcar project, Garvey accused a fellow board member and prominent streetcar advocate Chris Zimmerman of a conflict of interest. Zimmerman is working as a consultant to a subsidiary of one of the firms that has consulted with Arlington County on streetcar issues, a job he disclosed three months earlier than required.

Zimmerman denied that he has a conflict and refused to recuse himself from Monday’s vote. In response, Garvey told the board and top officials that she would release her e-mails on the topic to The Washington Post and other media.

Both the county attorney and the rest of the board publicly defended Zimmerman last week, and he read a short statement defending himself near the end of Monday’s meeting as well.

Whether the broken comity of the Arlington County Board is permanent or temporary remains to be seen. Garvey said Monday night that she felt she had a fair hearing, although she is not done fighting against the streetcar project. Board member Mary Hynes, who butted heads with Garvey all night, said at the end: “We had a debate at the table. We worked through it. ... That’s what good government is.”

But board member Jay Fisette, who has most often voted with Garvey, warned that the feelings stirred up by the battle may linger longer than most procedural issues the board handles.

“For me, the tactic of surfacing, or threatening to surface, e-mails between board members ... is a warning,” Fisette said after the meeting. “That’s new to this board.”

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.

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