Arlington County officials are pressing forward with plans for a Columbia Pike streetcar system, despite the federal government’s initial rejection of the county’s funding request due to projected cost overruns.
Officials explained last night, at a County Board meeting, that the Federal Transit Administration rejected its request for $75 million in grant funding because the total project cost was estimated to exceed the $250 million — the cap for projects to receive funding under the FTA’s Small Starts program.
Though pegged by the county at $245.9 million, a contractor hired by the FTA estimated the project cost to instead be between $255.9 and $402.4 million, including contingencies, and thus ineligible for a Small Starts grant. The contractor said $310.1 million was “a most likely cost.”
County officials said the contractor’s report and a subsequent in-person meeting with senior FTA staff lead them to believe the project is still likely to receive federal funding.
“They made it very clear that their action wasn’t based on the merits of the project,” Arlington County Transportation Director Dennis Leach told the Board. “It was really that technical factor that they felt our cost estimate was likely to be somewhat higher.”
Arlington will actually be eligible to receive more than the initially-requested $75 million in federal funding if it applies under the FTA’s New Starts program. Unlike Small Starts, New Starts doesn’t have a cap on total project cost.
“If the county were to choose to reapply as a New Start, the project could qualify for more federal funding,” said Stephen Del Giudice, Arlington County Transit Bureau Chief. ”We have a high likelihood of success in addressing the goals of the project.”
“What’s clear at this point is that changes to the evaluation criteria will most likely have a positive impact on FTA’s future rating of our project,” echoed Brian Stout, the county’s federal liaison. ”We’ll continue… to work with our partners at FTA to identify federal opportunities for them to support the Columbia Pike streetcar project.”
Even before the report on the FTA’s rationale for its decision, County Board Chair Walter Tejada said the county was not abandoning plans for the streetcar.
“Moving forward with a modern streetcar is our stated policy, and that’s what we’re committed to doing,” Tejada said. “We can repeat it many times, but nothing’s going to change.”
Tejada’s vote of confidence for the project came after Libby Garvey, the lone streetcar critic on the five-member County Board, gave a PowerPoint highlighting problems with other streetcar systems around the country. News reports cited by Garvey include:
- Walking is often faster than riding streetcar in Portland (The Oregonian)
- Portland streetcar fare revenue nearly 50 percent below projections (The Oregonian)
- Tampa streetcars could require city subsidy (Tampa Tribune)
- Cincinnati streetcar facing $26 million cost overrun (Cincinnati Herald)
- Tucson streetcar operating costs 4 times initial estimate (Arizona Daily Star)
“I have not made up the articles, I have not made up the facts,” Garvey said. “These facts are facts. They’re inconvenient, but true.”
The Federal Transit Administration has declined Arlington and Fairfax County’s joint application for funding for the planned Columbia Pike streetcar system.
In a press release (below), both counties say they will continue pursuing federal funding for the streetcar.
Arlington and Fairfax Counties have been informed that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has not included the Columbia Pike Streetcar Project in its Small Starts program for Fiscal Year 2014. The FTA today released its FY 2014 Annual Report on Funding Recommendations.
Arlington County Board Chairman J. Walter Tejada today reaffirmed the County’s commitment to the Columbia Pike Streetcar Project and noted that the County has not received any official evaluation of the project or explanation for the FTA’s decision. He cautioned against speculating about the reasons for the FTA’s action pending clarification.
“Arlington, in partnership with Fairfax County, is committed to building a modern streetcar line along Columbia Pike as the best long term transit investment,” Tejada said. “We will continue to explore all financing options, including federal financing. While we are disappointed at not being included this year, we believe our application was strong, and will continue to work with FTA for inclusion into the Small Starts/New Starts program.”
“The Pike streetcar will address the community’s needs by providing greater capacity on one of the Commonwealth’s most heavily traveled corridors,” Tejada said. “It will encourage more people to use transit, will reduce congestion, help us meet our affordable housing goals, and will support the sort of development that the community wants.”
Fairfax County Supervisor Penny Gross reaffirmed Fairfax County’s commitment as well. “The Columbia Pike Streetcar Project is vitally important to the economic revitalization of Columbia Pike and the Skyline/Bailey’s Crossroads area of Fairfax County, which has long desired connection to a rail transit network,” Gross said. “Although I am disappointed that our joint application for Small Starts funding was not approved this year, I am confident that the strong community and business support for the project and the long collaborative partnership between Fairfax and Arlington counties will merit federal funding in the future.”
Project work on the Columbia Pike Streetcar continues, including conceptual engineering and environmental efforts to finalize project facilities and secure required environmental approvals.
Streetcar funding to come from variety of sources
Arlington and Fairfax applied to the FTA’s Small Starts program in September 2012. The program offers up to $75 million in funding for projects costing less than $250 million to design and build. The funding plan for the Streetcar relies on a combination of federal, state and local funding, with Arlington’s local funding coming from the tax on commercial properties that is dedicated to transportation. Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell recently signed into law a new transportation funding bill that makes more money available to Northern Virginia for infrastructure investments such as the streetcar.
In the spring of 2006, both the Arlington County Board and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors endorsed a streetcar line for Columbia Pike that would stretch nearly five miles from Pentagon City to the Skyline Drive area of Fairfax County. The streetcar would serve a corridor that is in the midst of a dramatic transformation into a more transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly, vibrant Main Street, a vision developed through years of community planning. Arlington’s plan for the streetcar includes an aggressive plan to preserve affordable housing and diversity along the Pike.
Both the Arlington and Fairfax boards reaffirmed their decisions in the summer of 2012, when they chose streetcar as the locally preferred alternative for Columbia Pike and opted to apply for federal funding under the FTA’s New Starts/Small Starts program.
To learn more about the Columbia Pike Streetcar, visit the County website.
The grant — one of the $2.1 million in grants awarded by HUD in Virginia — will help A-SPAN and its “Open Doors” program provide housing and case management for six chronically homeless adults in Arlington over the next year. A-SPAN currently provides housing and case management for 24 chronically homeless adults who suffer from mental illness and/or substance abuse.
“The clients we will house are those that have been homeless for many years and have been diagnosed with a mental illness and other severe health problems,” A-SPAN Executive Director Kathleen Sibert said in a press release. “Despite those difficulties, we’ve shown that these clients can be successful, but they are our most vulnerable neighbors. Helping them get into housing is our main goal and what we’re working toward with the 100 Homes for 100 Homeless Arlingtonians Campaign.”
Historic ‘Arlington Oak’ Toppled — A historic tree in Arlington National Cemetery is now firewood thanks to Hurricane Irene. The cemetery revealed last night that the ‘Arlington Oak’ at the Kennedy gravesite had been knocked down by the storm’s high winds and steady rains. “That tree had a significant legacy here,” said a cemetery official. [CBS News]
Firefighters Collecting for MDA — Arlington’s firefighters are out “filling the boot” at busy intersections to collect money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. A medic crew was out at the intersection of Glebe Road and Columbia Pike last night, and the crew from Engine 109 was spotted out in the Shirlington area, among others. [Shirlington Village Blog]
Are Arlington’s Green Grants Worth It? — Arlington received $3.2 million in federal green energy grants in 2009, according to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. But was it worth it? One of the grants — $300,000 — was spent to place solar panels on the roof of the Arlington Central Library, a move expected to save some $150,000 over 10-15 years. The Journal opines that it may not be the best investment to give “one of the five wealthiest counties in America free money.” [Wall Street Journal]
Flickr pool photo by BrianMKA
The board voted to use its existing, two-year-old Budget Stabilization Fund to make up the gap, caused by a $442,077 reduction in federal community block grants. The grants are used to fund local human services and education projects, to support affordable housing and homeless prevention initiatives, to improve neighborhood safety and to enhance economic opportunities for residents.
In a press release, the county cautioned that additional federal funding cuts are likely next year.
“It is a good thing that Arlington has the reserves available to get us through FY 2012,” said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman. “This is, however, a temporary solution. We expect the federal government to make far deeper cuts in FY 2013, cuts that may seriously affect programs that create affordable housing, house the homeless, provide training for the unemployed and more. We are starting now to make contingency plans with our non-profit partners for FY 2013.”
Workers were busy installing 250 solar panels on the roof of Arlington Central Library today.
The 60 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system will save the library $14,000 in peak electricity costs every year and will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 100,000 pounds annually, officials say.
“As part of Fresh AIRE (Arlington Initiative to Reduce Emissions), the new solar photovoltaic system will contribute to Arlington’s goal to reduce the County government greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent by 2012,” the county said in a press release. “Central Library is an ideal facility for a solar photovoltaic system, due to its large, flat roof that can easily collect sunlight, coupled with previous AIRE energy efficiency improvements.”
The project was funded entirely by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Energy. The system will take about two months to install, weather-permitting.
The Arlington County Police Department is set to receive 19 night vision goggles, valued at $178,125, as a result of a federal Homeland Security grant. Another $37,430 in grant money will cover training for ACPD’s tactical team, which will be using the goggles.
The equipment has an estimated life span of 5 to 7 years.
The funding for the goggles are part of a larger $1.6 million grant designed “to increase response capabilities of tactical teams [within] the National Capital Region.”
Update at 4:10 p.m. — The goggles “will provide the SWAT team with the capability to operate in low light situations such as buildings without power, wooded areas at night, etc.,” said Capt. Kevin Reardon of the police department’s Homeland Security Section.
Officials hope to replace 1,800 streetlights, or 40 percent of all county-owned lights, by the spring of 2011. The funds for the project will come from a federal energy efficiency and conservation grant.
After the initial push, the county will install 500 new streetlights per year. The conversion will take about six years to complete, and will produce a significant cost savings for the county.
The new lights are expected to cut energy consumption by about 60 percent and save more than $1 million per year, according to one estimate.
Even after the conversion, however, most streetlights in the county will be of the older, less energy-efficient variety. That’s because the vast majority of streetlights in Arlington are owned by Dominion Power. Dominion operates 11,700 lights under contract with the county, and those have not yet been scheduled for an upgrade.
“Arlington and Dominion are exploring options to improve the energy efficiency of those [streetlights] in the future,” the county said in a statement.