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County Optimistic About Federal Funds for Streetcar Despite Cost Concerns

Columbia Pike streetcar renderingArlington 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.

Rendering of a streetcar along Columbia Pike“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:

“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.”

Other articles not in the presentation but recently published include:

Garvey also argued that expanded bus service could actually carry more riders than a streetcar system, a point disputed by the county’s analysis. The county estimates that Columbia Pike transit ridership will increase from about 16,000 now to more than 30,000 after the streetcar begins operating.

County Manager Barbara Donnellan, for her part, said county staff will be examining the FTA contractor’s recommendations for reducing the cost of the streetcar project.

“There are numerous opportunities for us to reduce the cost of this project if we take advantage and look at some of the things that they have said,” she said.

“Transportation projects are complex, and they take a lot of money and they take a lot of time,” Donnellan added.

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