After years of contention over how to improve transit along Columbia Pike, the Arlington County Board Tuesday night unanimously agreed to move ahead with the design and construction of 23 new stops along Virginia’s busiest bus route.
The transit stops are expected to look similar to the notorious $1 million bus stop at the Pike near Walter Reed Drive, but the roof will be flatter and the windscreen will be taller, to keep rain and snow off passengers waiting for the bus. Most importantly, the cost of the shelters and platforms will be about half what the first one cost.
County manager Mark Schwartz recommended that the board authorize the shelters to be built from a “kit of parts” using high-quality materials which will provide the most durable option with the least required maintenance. It was the same basic advice he gave the board in late May, but board members at that time asked the county staff to investigate whether less costly options, such as pre-fabricated shelters, would be the better choice.
Using prefabricated shelters would lower the initial costs, officials said, but they are more easily damaged, have a much shorter life, require multiple shelters at each stop and take up more room on crowded sidewalks. Over the shelters’ projected 50-year life span, the prefabricated stops would cost nearly the same as the factory-assembled kit, county transportation officials said.
The board previously authorized spending $13.3 million, but allowing the shelters to be assembled at the factory would drop that cost to $11.5 million, said Dennis Leach, the county’s director of transportation. Giving a contractor design and performance specifications and giving the contractor more latitude about how to meet those goals could save more money, he said. The county will retain oversight of the project.
“This is a no-brainer as to what is practical for what we need to do,” said board member Christian Dorsey (D).
The first Columbia Pike transit stop, originally labeled a “super stop,” was intended to serve both modern buses and streetcars. But in March 2013, when the $1 million price tag became known, Arlington’s project became the butt of international ridicule.
County officials promised the following year that they would trim subsequent costs by 40 percent, but it was too late; a political uproar had already begun and it concluded with the abandonment of the long-planned streetcar project in November 2014. Columbia Pike residents have been waiting ever since for the board to live up to its promise of improving mass transit along the road.
The county has spent more than $50 million putting utilities underground and rebuilding portions of Columbia Pike and will spend another $100 million by the time all the work is done, Leach told the board. The county has a complex transit plan that will institute limited-stop Metrobuses, the local ART bus routes and a “connector” Metrobus that will come every six minutes, stopping at each stop along the five mile route from Fairfax County’s Skyline neighborhood to the Pentagon.
The 23 new transit stops’ costs could average $500,000 if the project comes in at $11.5 million. About 65 percent of the cost will be paid for by state and federal grants. The rest of the money comes from a local commercial real estate tax.
About half the cost of each stop is attributed to the 90- to 100-foot-long platform, and below-grade utility connections needed. The stops, spaced an average of 1,200 feet apart, will be within a quarter-mile distance of most residents of the Columbia Pike neighborhoods.
It will still be several years before any new stops appear. Design specifications need to be written and bids go out before construction could start in the spring of 2018, officials said.