December 6, 2013

Virginia is developing a fine tradition of squandering precious public-transit dollars. Rail in the Dulles corridor was originally estimated to cost around $1.5 billion but will end up close to $6 billion. The Tide line in Norfolk ballooned from around $200 million to nearly $320 million and is one of the poorest-performing light-rail systems in the country.

Arlington County is following in these footsteps. In 2006, the county board approved a $120 million streetcar for Columbia Pike. By 2010, despite the financial crisis and very low inflation, the price tag had skyrocketed beyond $250 million, which would have rendered the project ineligible for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Small Starts grant that the county intended to seek.

The county could have taken the escalating costs, and the threat of losing federal financing, as an invitation to consider alternatives to the streetcar. Instead, it made the streetcar appear to cost less than $250 million by shifting various streetcar components to other projects. For example, streetcar stations were moved into the county’s “Superstops” project, and most utility work was budgeted under “other projects either currently in construction, or proposed to be constructed prior to commencement of [the] Streetcar Project.”

While this shell game was underway, the planning and engineering firm AECOM was preparing an “alternatives analysis.” In theory, such analyses assess multiple transit options, helping officials choose the best one. But the board had already approved the streetcar years before, and AECOM has a longstanding and lucrative business relationship with the county. Last year, the AECOM study recommended the streetcar, even though it found that an enhanced bus system would carry virtually the same number of passengers, cost roughly one-fifth as much to build, and cost millions less to operate.

The county also released a return-on-investment study in June 2012. Unfortunately, that study was limited to the streetcar and did not evaluate the potential return-on-investment of other options. Would doing so have contradicted the county’s carefully constructed narrative in favor of the streetcar? Quite possibly. A recent study by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy found that, dollar for dollar, bus rapid transit generally is a better investment than streetcars or light rail.

Once this paper trail was complete, the board approved the streetcar again and submitted its Small Starts grant application. It was promptly rejected, because the FTA found that the streetcar’s true cost could be as high as $400 million.

In a rational world, the county would reassess, especially in light of the barrage of negative attention surrounding the $1 million it spent on the first “Superstop.” But the board, with the exception of Libby Garvey, appears blind to the growing pile of red flags.

For example, the board approved an additional $1 million contract to AECOM for more streetcar planning. Most recently, the board awarded a contract to update its streetcar return-on-investment analysis. Although the contractor is now required to consider streetcar alternatives, County Board Chair Walter Tejada has declared that the streetcar will move forward regardless of the update’s conclusions. Moreover, the contract specifically states that the consultant will not be paid unless the county approves its work product. Given this veto power, the views of a majority of the board and the history of prebaked studies, I have a hunch the streetcar will come out smelling like a rose.

Citizens deserve honest, independent cost estimates and analyses. They also deserve elected officials who are capable of reevaluating when promises and expectations prove to be wildly off the mark. Until this happens, we will continue wasting public transit resources by spending too much and accomplishing too little.

The writer, an attorney and private transportation consultant, is a member of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. From 1994 to 1998, he served in the U.S. Transportation Department, including as director of the Office of Policy and Program Support in the Research and Special Programs Administration.