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The Right Note: Trolley FOIA Follow-Up

by Mark Kelly March 14, 2013 at 3:00 pm 1,328 92 Comments

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column by published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Mark KellyAfter last week’s post on the prohibitively expensive FOIA estimate the county gave for documents related to the Columbia Pike trolley project, I did some digging.

According to Virginia law, a public body may make “reasonable charges for its actual cost” and may not charge for any “extraneous, intermediary or surplus fees or expenses” related to producing a response to a FOIA request.

If you look at advisory council opinions on the matter, it seems as though those charges can include county staff time to produce FOIA responses. So, the $517 estimated charge from the county for staff time certainly seems in order.

At first the $2,341 charge for AECOM staff time seemed to be included in the estimate largely to make the price tag to view the documents in question out of reach for the person requesting them. This price tag leads many people to think the county may have something to hide about the project.

After reading through advisory council opinions, the county may also need to revisit whether they can even request a fee to pay for AECOM’s services under Virginia law.

The first issue is the definition of “intermediary” as well as the meaning of “its actual cost” as they apply to AECOM. In my brief research, I did not find an advisory council opinion directly on point in regards to paying a consultant. However, one opinion called into question fees for an attorney to review FOIA documents.

It said, “in most situations, if a public body chooses to have an attorney review FOIA requests and responses, it may do so, but should do so at its own expense, or charge no more than it would charge to have administrative or support staff perform the same work.” This begs the question: Can the county charge for AECOM’s work at all, or only charge hours by AECOM employees at the same rate as hours for a county staff member to do the same work?

The second issue is, even if the county could charge for AECOM’s fees, is it reasonable to pay a consultant to search for and produce documents that should already be in the county’s possession? After all, the county was a party to, or recipients of, all the meetings, memos, and emails in question.

The county should be pressed to provide a justification for the AECOM charge. Hopefully, the county will simply drop the AECOM portion and provide the documents in its possession for the more reasonable cost of county staff time.

Transparency is not a partisan issue – it is a good government issue. In this increasingly digital world, it becomes easier and easier to improve the level of transparency our government provides us. Holding back information, like holding one-way trolley forums instead of giving both sides a chance to make a case, is not beneficial for the public good.

Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

  • novasteve

    What did you think about the “balance” on Jim Moran’s panel on gun control that occurred earlier this week?

    • novastephanie


      • @novastephanie….are you the anti-novasteve? :0-)

      • tiptop

        he’s a paid blogger to fraudulently boast page hits so that ad rates can go up.

  • Captain Obvious

    I’m actually not a streetcar supporter, but considering the breadth of the FOIA request and the many years’ worth of responsive documents, this response from the County does not seem out of line.

    • Tim

      Doesn’t seem out of line to me either. If you were to force contractors to respond to these types of requests at no additional cost, contractors are going to turn around and charge higher rates on future consulting contracts to protect themselves from this risk.

      • Plane Jane

        There is no reason the County is looking outside County government offices for documents. FOIA is to get government documents.

        • not_you

          … except in a lot of places in the County their are contractors doing work instead of full time government employees. So the contractors charge ‘their’ rate when ‘their’ employees are asked to do something.

  • Arlington Chris

    Haha, he said “This begs the question” 🙂

    • rootbear911

      I know, cringeworthy. I was waiting for a “whatnot” or two after I saw that.

  • Why are they building an expensive trolley when they could just buy more buses for a lot less money?

    • novasteve

      Because the insecure, pretentious snobs that live in the county won’t take a bus, but they apparently will take a trolley because sophisiticated europeans have them.

      • Wry observer (D)

        Translation: Because people like Steve won’t take a bus – he will only consider taking a train to work, and hopes Metro will expand so he can live farther from DC.

        • novasteve

          Taking the bus to work would probably take 5-7x longer than taking the metro would take. The Streetcar would be no faster, as it uses the STREET. I’m not the one who wants to spend tons more money because some people are too insecure to be seen on the bus if the bus and the trolley travel at the same speeds using the streets.

          • Josh S

            I’d just like to say that my personal commute is definitely shorter by bus than it would be by Metro. It would probably also be faster than the streetcar, but that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to the streetcar. It’s not just about me.

          • novasteve

            Given there isn’t a dedicated right of way for the streetcar, it will be slower than a bus because a bus can change lanes.

          • Josh S

            This is one of those “common sense” predictions that doesn’t necessarily pan out in real life.

      • Scott

        What do you like about living in Arlington?

        • novasteve

          Short commute.

          • drax

            You’re the only sane person here. Everyone else is a pretentious snob. But you’re completely normal.

        • Kramer

          poor soul is probably a bore at Festivus — nothing to say.

    • Jill

      Buses don’t spur redevelopment; Trolleys have an existing track record of attracting redevelopment similar to subway stops.

      • novasteve

        And what about the consequences of development? Meaning rents will go up even further, which will then make the board require more subsidized housing that will drive the rent up even further in the county. Will having only really rich and really poor people in the county improve things? Does it also help the environment by forcing middle income people to move further out?

        • Jim

          I think the County’s looking for the sweet spot that will drive just you out.

        • Scott

          Rents are going to continue to go up either way in close in areas to DC– mainly Arlington. More and more people are moving to this area. This area (Arlington) will continue to be squeezed and lower income folks will inevitably be pushed into the further burbs.

        • @novasteve, what if ArlCo has no development? Would that be better? And, since are you an advocate to shrink the growing gap between the rich and the middle class (and the poor)?

      • arlpete
        • Jill

          The study you cite is silent on redevelopment impact. But, instead of relying on a study of British experience, just look at the recent experience in Hampton Roads, in which light rail has seen resulted in extensive re-development, both completed and under construction, in an aging area similar to Columbia Pike. It’s worked, in Virginia, in recent history, to spur the redevelopment of a centrally located but aging corridor.

          The opponents of light rail in Arlington always ignore the Hampton Road experience because it has been a great success.

          • Jeff

            Just like proponents ignore almost every single other study ever…

      • dm

        like all those trolley lines that they took out decades ago?

        • confused

          google on “street car suburb”

        • Jill

          Yes. Infrastructure ages, and needs change. Redevelopment must occur, to replace old buildings and infrastructure. Light rail development has a very high rate of adoption and popularity; there are a few failures (Dallas Light rail was ill-conceived, for example – Dallas is not space limited, and its downtown does not have a residential base). Cranks and sophists will argue that light rail (or any other change) makes no sense, but you’d be very hard pressed to find an urban planning professional who argues against the viability of light rail (unless you are willing to dig underground at 50x the cost and a 5x schedule.

      • Jeff

        New Orleans is a perfect case study for why Arlington County’s trolley plans will be a horrible waste of money. The trolleys share the same lanes as vehicles (at least in some areas), and they fail miserably. They are subject to the same traffic as the buses, yet are slower and used less. The trains can get busy during rush hour between the Garden District (wealthy area) and the Central Business District, but many people choose to drive since it is faster and less of a hassle. Rush hour traffic in Downtown New Orleans rivals DC, but for a much narrower time period. The trolley line has not spurred redevelopment in its areas of expansion, and did not when first built either. They cause traffic issues with frequent trolley/vehicle accidents, and then shut down the trolley line since unlike a bus, they cannot switch lanes to avoid the problem.

        With a dedicated travel lane, trolleys could be effective – but Arlington is not going that route.

        • Josh S

          Sounds like New Orleans either did a poor job designing the streetcar when it was built or in managing development patterns since then. Your story is not a reason to dismiss streetcars altogether, even ones that run in the same lane as cars.

          • Jeff

            That could very well be the case, but Arlington County is making the same exact mistakes from the planning perspective. Streetcars sharing lanes with traffic fail for the same reasons New Orleans sees poor ridership (as mentioned above). I’m not dismissing streetcars altogether, as I stated in the last sentence – just streetcars that share lanes with vehicles. I might still think the price tag is excessive for a street car, but I wouldn’t have nearly as much of a problem with it as I do with the concept of a shared travel lane.

          • speonjosh

            I would suggest that there are more cities in the world with streetcars in the road than just New Orleans. Their results may be different.

          • 1RLI

            So does that mean stories of successful streetcar examples should also be ignored?

          • speonjosh

            That’s not what I meant. I am pointing out that you can’t rely on one example to reach your conclusion.

          • NO

            New Orleans has mostly legacy streetcars running on tracks from 100 years ago. They function as tourist attractions as much as commuter lines. They aren’t serving the developed areas as commuter trains nearly as much as a modern one would, like on the Pike.

    • confused

      why dont you read the thousand other threads on Arlnow that debate that very question?

  • thegump

    Let’s collect $2,858 in pennies and personally deliver the fee.

    • Jill

      yes, that’s an adult response that will impress everyone.

      • thegump

        $2,858 for a FOIA request is equally ludicrous.

        • Jill

          You don’t see many FOIA bills, I assume.

          • thegump

            Wrong. I know for a fact that several of the expenses are inflated. Not everyone is that naive, Jill.

          • South Awwlington

            Care to share that evidence?

    • Trev

      Just counted: I have $43.14. Count me in!

    • Man Up

      Sure is a lot of whining over $2,800. Are you going to be a leader? Do you want to be effective? Then do what you have to do, and get things done. Don’t grovel and complain about minor obstacles.

      • thegump

        This is the comment section of a county website that blogs about crock pot thefts and rouge couches on I-495. Save the pep talk for your boy scout troop, nobody cares.

        • speonjosh

          Correction: you don’t care.
          Also, did the couch get hit by the Maybeline truck?

    • Show me the money

      There should be a kickstarter for this

      • speonjosh

        A fool and his money are soon parted.

  • Scott

    Even though it says the writer is the former Arlington GOP Chairman, I agree with everything he’s said in this post. FOIA charges should only be for County employees time to pulled and copy the requested documents.

    • Jake

      But AECOM is likely the custodian of the documents. if you were to have the County search there records, guess what? that employee would probably charged in excess to $2,200 to inefficiently perform the review AECOM can much more efficiently perform.

      • Scott

        The county rates charged are much lower than AECOM. This exercise involves pulling and photocopying documents. Do you think that’s really beyond the capabilities for the County employees? AECOM is a contractor working on behalf of the County. The documents referenced are ultimately the responsibility of the County. Further as the writer researched and noted 1) the County possibly shouldn’t be charging for AECOM time at all noting the precedent of not charging of outside legal costs and 2) if AECOM time is charged it should be done so at the County’s FOIA billing rates.

        Overall this seems to stink of anti-transparency. That the County is putting up roadblocks in the way of excessive fees makes me want to see a light shown on the requested docs. What are they hiding?

        • Tim

          Have you seen the document request? If you have not, you have no idea whether it is excessive. It may require a broad reaching review to determine compliance.

          I can tell you from experience, this is an ordinary charge for FOIA request involving public contracts. I also know that, contrary to your assertion, governments typically undercharge the amount of time actually devoted to such efforts, because they know blling for the true time and costs can be a real burden.

          But maybe Mark can post his full FOIA request here, and let people assess home much effort it would take to cull the requested documents from a large depository of documents,.

          • Scott

            I’m all for government transparency. The information should be shared. No, I’ve not seen the request. The issue is the majority of the charges are for AECOM. AECOM is not the County. Does AECOM review FOIA requests to determine compliance? Should they? R or D I think it’s a good idea to keep an eye on who’s minding the store.

        • not_you

          There is no one County FOIA billing rate… it greatly depends on what staff is doing the research to pull the documents… theres not somebody paid minimum wage just to sit and pull documents for FOIA requests ….

    • Josh S

      Scott, on what do you base your conclusions? This guy? Is it possible there are more arguments to be made and more to the issue than what he brings in this column? (Lord knows he didn’t bring much in the last one, so there isn’t much reason to count it.)

      • Scott

        It’s a FOIA request. How complicated could it be? Request is made. Gov’t pulls related documents, photocopies, provides to the requesting person.

        Could you let me know what else I’m missing in the process?

        • not_you

          obviously you’ve never had to search through records to find just the right records that someone is requesting… you seem to think all ‘trolley’ records are filed in the ‘Trolley Office’ under ‘Trolley’….

          • nom de guerre

            The appropriate records would be filed under “trolley” and would not be found in the troll’s office.

          • not_you

            sorry for the typo’s … I know how critical everyone is of them and how they can distract from a discussion… (the text has been edited and the previous writer has been sacked… we will now continue in an entirely new format… )

        • Mick Way

          They also have to review each document to see if it contains personal information or other exempted information. More info here:


      • Let_Them_Eat_Cake

        Who has two thumbs and loves FOIA requests?

  • malaka

    If you really thought that “the county may have something to hide about the project” I am sure that your friends at the Heritage foundation (who you used to work for) would gladly stump up the $2,341. After all it’s not even pocket change to the Kochs. So you should stop making such vague accusations if you don’t believe them enough to back them up

  • Ballston Resident

    OK Mark – let’s get on the same page so we can understand what you are talking about.

    Please spell out your acronyms. Let people know what FOIA and AECOM stand for. You assume people know but they don’t.

    What are you talking about? First you mention a $517 estimated charge from the county for staff time certainly which you seem to think is in order. I think that is an unreasonable fee if it is for a Freedom of Information Request.

    Next you mention: “At first the $2,341 charge for AECOM staff time seemed to be included in the estimate largely to make the price tag to view the documents in question out of reach for the person requesting them. This price tag leads many people to think the county may have something to hide about the project.” Excuse me but what is an AECOM? Is it a contractor charging unreasonable fees for a Freedom of Information Request? Are you blaming a contractor hired by the government for this problem instead of the government?

    OK, how did thing go from $517 to $2,341 and what again is an AECOM? What does this all have to do with a trolley? Do you want us to be mind readers? I’m glad you did some digging, but I have not idea what you found or what you are talking about. Transparency – where does that come from?

    What is your point?

    • nom de guerre
    • SomeGuy

      Should he also observe a syllable limit for each word so you can keep up? If so, please use your ten (10) fingers (usually five on each hand) to count out how many you’re (“you are”) comfortable with, and let us know.

    • Jeff

      Did you read his article from last week that he referenced? This one assumed you had the background from it.

      • speonjosh

        Why? Is the guy that conceited that he assumes everyone reads and memorizes everything he posts?

        • Jeff

          The OP has general questions and objections about the article that were mostly addressed in the previous article. These are short snippets in opinion columns rather than a defensible dissertation. The article links back for reference. He would’ve had to spend 3/4 of the article reiterating the questions that Ballston Resident asked that he already answered. Ballston Resident’s post would be like walking into a presentation halfway through then complaining he didn’t know the point he was trying to make because he was late.

    • speonjosh

      I wish I could upvote this a few dozen more times. The laziness of the writer is just incredible.

  • John Rambo

    Ridership estimates in planning for mass transit tends to be overestimated….Detroit people mover is excellent example….in planning stages they said average daily ridership of 67,700; Reality is about 7,000. Cost per passenger mile in Detroit to operate is over $4.00 (cost per passenger mile in Detroit to operate a bus is $0.82). Tampa Streetcar estimates were for 350,000 to ride annually…they exceeded this in the first year but now it is dropping back down to original estimate but the cost per rider to operate is well above planning estimates at $5,88. Not only do we not have it in our budget to build the Streetcar but we definitely cannot afford to operate it at a loss; unless of course you want higher taxes to bankroll this and/or cut Schools and other County services just so Zimmerman and Cronies can have Pike Streetcar.

    • Jill

      Again, look at the Hampton Roads project – ridership goals have far exceed the estimates. And then look even closer – look at the DC Metro experience – ridership is at all time highs. And the trolley car is just an above ground, single line connection to the same system, because an underground subway is cross prohibitive. And above ground Orange line II. The Trolley may be slower, but is will be part of the larger, successful system. This is not true of Tampa, or Detroit (both of which are in deep recessions, which of course drives down all economic activity, and job commuting).

      • Jill

        cost, not cross /Ed

        • speonjosh

          Just FYI, did you notice that the new system actually does let you edit posts?

      • 1RLI

        According to Metro, their ridership is not only NOT at an all time high, it is declining.

        • South Awwlington

          It’s declining (after a recent peak) because the system is struggling to keep up and at times having serious issues (see this week at National Airport). Commuters on a schedule need reliability and therefore are forced back into their SOV’s. Until we relieve some of the pressure on the aging infrastructure and get AHEAD on the maintenance, ridership will dwindle.

  • am3ricant

    Mark. Everybody knows you never go full r3tard. But there you go.

    Nobody cares about your vendetta and besides, your “brief research” isn’t a very good source for declaring what the County is and isn’t allowed to do.


    I really like this article because it proves that the Republican party knows how to most effectively deploy their resources. Use the blithering idiots in races that they won’t win anyway.

  • Mark

    The cost is almost as ludicrous as the project.

  • Bennett

    Ok, Mark, you’re improving.

  • not_you

    Having an Attorney ‘review’ documents vs a contractor ‘provide’ documents is two different things. In the example he gave about the attorney review… that’s not a requirement under State FOIA rules… so yes, a government body should pay for that… on the other hand if a contractor has to provide the documents then the cost should be paid for by the requester.

  • grammar nazi

    “This begs the question:”

    No, no, no!


  • not_you

    …but I guess this does point out that county employees are paid less than private sector… 🙂

  • John Rambo

    For those of you who always cite the Hampton Tide Light Rail…

    The $318 million system is estimated to cost $6.2 million a year to operate.

    The line had been planned to open in January 2010, but cost overruns and extended testing of trains and electronic signage required three delays…..
    But the Pike Trolley will be on budget ….Total B.S.

  • Easy solution

    Scan all documents upon receipt and post them to the web. All email communication to and from the board should be posted online in a running log format. Local governments need to be transparent to the community they serve.

  • Easy solution

    Scan all documents upon receipt and post them to the web. All email communication to and from the board should be posted online in a running log format. Local governments need to be transparent to the community they serve.

  • Candy

    Why not pitch the story to a real reporter, if the cost is such an issue? Journalists can request fees be waived.


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