Yesterday afternoon, the Arlington County Board held s final work session on the FY 2015 - FY 2024 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), originally scheduled for one and on-half hours, but one that extended to three hours.
The Washington Post's Patricia Sullivan begins her outstanding coverage of the work session in today's Post, writing:
"The Arlington County Board, once known for its 5-0 votes and near-unanamity of opinion on how to build the perfect progressive suburb, can no longer agree on whether the promise of an extra $65 million from the commonwealth is a good thing.
"In a contentious three-hour session Thursday, the board members traded verbal barbs over the Columbia Pike streetcar project, and whether last week’s announcement that the state of Virginia is willing to pay for half the cost of the line can really be trusted.
“Is this absolutely sure? Do we need to apply for it?” asked Libby Garvey (D), one of two board members who oppose building the $333 million streetcar line, favoring a modern bus system. “Sometimes you get a letter in the mail saying you’ve won up to... It sounds more likely than a sweepstakes, but it’s not a sure thing.”
"She and John Vihstadt (I), who also opposes the streetcar, tried to use a normally routine workshop meeting on the county’s capital improvements projects to stop the long-planned transit project in south Arlington. They proposed a series of motions to stop all spending on the streetcar plans, but they lost almost all on 3-2 votes."
Of the others, Sullivan wrote, "the board agreed to ask the county manager to study whether capital projects of more than $1 million should be subject to the board’s approval. The board also unanimously voted not to use residential taxpayer money on the streetcar, a policy they’ve expressed before."
The best part of Sullivan's reporting, however, may be the following three paragraphs (emphasis added):
"County Manager Barbara Donnellan tried to swat down the question of how reliable the state transportation money is, calling it “the most sure transportation funding [I’ve seen], as someone who’s been here 30 years.” She noted that Metrorail was built without funding guarantees.
"Vihstadt described the county’s publicity about the streetcar, which includes a series of online videos, to be “a costly and well-scripted Madison Avenue-like public relations campaign to sway public opinion, especially at a time when the funding scheme is in doubt... is an inappropriate expenditure of public funds.”
"County Board chairman Jay Fisette (D) called the description “offensive,” and Donnellan said: “If there wasn’t so much misinformation out there, maybe we could do fewer.”
Accurate, too, as my notes from the meeting also show!
Scott McCaffrey covered the work session in several separate articles, including a post in his Editor's Notebook blog, where he explained his early exit from the work session.
In one article, he points out the new streetcar funding plan will rely more on the commercial real estate surtax., e.g.:
"The Arlington business community will be on the hook for $10 million more than previously announced under the new funding plan for the Columbia Pike streeetcar, unveiled by County Manager Barbara Donnellan at a July 17 work session.
"Funding from a 12.5-percent surcharge on taxes levied on commercial property would account for $69.8 million of Arlington’s share of the cost of the controversial streetcar project, or 26 percent of the local cost, under the new plan. That compares to a previous estimate of $59.8 million, or 21 percent of the project cost, in a scenario that included the prospect of federal funding.
"In a he-probably-regretted-it-the-moment-it-came-out-of-his-mouth moment, county transportation chief Dennis Leach referred to the $10 million change as simply a “slight increase.” Taking more funds from the commercial-surcharge pot of gold gives opponents of the streetcar project another line of attack against supporters, who say the funds could be better spent elsewhere.
< . . . >
"But allocating $69.8 million of those funds, rather than $59.8 million, to the streetcar project means there will be $10 million that won’t go to other projects."
McCaffrey goes and raises questions that are at the heart of the commercial surtax:
"At first blush, the 12.5-percent surcharge on commercial property, which was authorized and then mandated by the General Assembly, appears to fly in the face of the state constitution, which requires that commercial and residential property be assessed at similar rates.
"But when the issue went to the Virginia Supreme Court, the justices ruled that as long as the funding generated was dedicated to a specific purpose and within a specific location, in this case transportation and Northern Virginia, then the surcharge was allowable.
"Both state and local business organizations generally have been supportive of the surcharge, so long as the funding goes toward a range of transportation improvements that includes both roads and transit."
In a second article, McCaffey reports that "Arlington officials have newfound praise for VDOT.," pointing out that its "a situation that a few years ago would have seemed as unlikely as cats and mice signing a truce to live in peace and harmony."
McCaffrey had two more articles, which reported on separate items that are unrelated to transportation issues. First, he reported the County Board "tiptoed away from fast-tracking the move of Fire Station No. 8 and the Office of Emergency Management to new homes at 26th Street North and Old Dominion Drive." In the fourth article that resulted from the County Board's CIP work session yesterday, McCaffrey reported that "Arlington officials have agreed to spend $300,000 more over the coming year to bring additional bus stops into compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act."
ARLnow.com filed a report on the CIP work session late yesterday afternoon. Eathan Rothstein's report included this:
"Board members Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt, the County Board’s two streetcar opponents, grilled county Transportation Director Dennis Leach and other county staff about the reliability of state funds and the county’s projections. Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne announced last week that the state would contribute up to $65 million to the project.
“I was just trying to figure out how sure this money is,” Garvey is, noting words like “anticipate” and “up to” in Layne’s letter. “It seems like you’re very sure about it but it doesn’t sound like you can take it to the bank.”
"County Board Chair Jay Fisette issued a strong rebuttal to the concerns, claiming that in his nearly two decades on the County Board, “the state funding in this plan is the most reliable state transportation funding we’ve ever had.”
Although I could not find coverage of the County Board's CIP work session by the Arlington Patch, they did provide earlier coverage of the state providing up to $65 million for the Columbia Pike streetcar. They also reported that county poobahs will "beat the drum for controversial streetcar plan."
At their revamped CIP program webpages, county staff have a great deal of content about the streetcar and the funding for it. Included are meeting agendas, presentations, and answers to Board members questions. Arlington County taxpayers are urged to browse through this material. If the material raises a question, you are urged to:
- Call the Board office at (703) 228-3130
If they ask, them ACTA sent you!
"If we don’t do this, . . . we become a bottleneck for the region and we become a far less wonderful place to live,” warned Hynes.
"Tejada, who was vice chairman two years ago when the board approved a plan that tied new development in the Columbia Pike area with saving 6,200 currently affordable apartments
, said “It’s always easy to denigrate, criticize, attack, oppose and create a negative environment. . . .
We are creating plans for all the generations to come.”
"Fisette noted that most of the money used to build the Columbia Pike streetcar can’t be used for other priorities. The streetcar corridor, he said, will attract more than three times the private development
that an enhanced bus system would. He appealed to Arlington residents to “look into the detail beyond the narration and sound bytes, look at the benefits to the county.”