County Board member John Vihstadt is renewing his push to delay the construction of the Long Bridge Park aquatics center.
Vihstadt is waging a lonely battle against the oft-postponed project as the county’s budget picture grows increasingly grim. He says the $60 million the county’s set to spend on the new pool would be better spent on building new schools or buying additional park land, particularly considering that Arlington is feeling a financial squeeze at the moment.
Between sending more money to Metro and declining commercial tax revenues, the County Board is facing some challenging headwinds as it nears a final decision this weekend on a new, 10-year plan for construction spending. Vihstadt, the Board’s lone independent who is running for re-election this fall, thinks the 72,000-square-foot pool complex can wait a bit longer.
The project’s skyrocketing costs have convinced the Board to repeatedly adjust its plans it over the years, and Vihstadt made an effort to drive down its cost a key plank of his 2014 bid for office. But he still feels that even the facility’s reduced cost is too much for Arlington to take on right now.
“Times change, circumstances change, and I just don’t think it’s right to go forward on that project,” Vihstadt told ARLnow. “Schools have a higher priority. Parks have a higher priority.”
Yet, just as when he cast the lone vote against the project’s construction last December, Vihstadt appears to be in the minority on that position. His four colleagues on the Board all told ARLnow that they wouldn’t support any effort to postpone the Long Bridge project, even with the county’s money troubles in mind.
“Raising these issues when he first ran for election was an important contribution, because it shifted that narrative to value engineering,” said Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey. “That success is something John ought to feel he positively contributed to. Now, it’s the responsibility of the rest of us to follow through.”
The pro-pool Board members all point out that the project has been in the works for decades, with the community formally signing off on money for the aquatics center as part of a bond referendum back in 2004, and would fill a void for such a facility in the Crystal City area.
But they also stress that the process of unwinding the work the county’s already done would be so costly as to make the effort pointless. County Manager Mark Schwartz believes that cancelling the county’s existing contract to build the facility would prompt extensive litigation, with financial consequences to follow.
“We cannot simply break the contract,” Board member Libby Garvey wrote in an email. “Likely there would be real financial penalties for us if we did, to say nothing of the damage to our reputation among builders. Companies bidding on our projects in the future would likely add extra cost because we could not be trusted to fulfill our contracts.”
The aquatic center’s proponents also see any move to reverse the Long Bridge decision as one that would send the wrong message to the community, or as an effort to “re-litigate the past,” as Board member Erik Gutshall puts it.
“If you can’t trust our word and the votes of the Board, it’s just inviting an endless cycle of pitting project against project right up to the point the ribbon is cut,” said Board Chair Katie Cristol.
But Vihstadt believes taxpayers would appreciate the Board’s willingness to re-examine its priorities as fiscal realities change. For instance, as debate about amenities to be built for high schoolers at the Career Center site heats up, Vihstadt suggested redirecting some of the Long Bridge money to add a pool at that location instead.
“A pool in a high school… makes more sense than an aquatics center, which is going to be used more heavily by folks outside of Arlington,” Vihstadt said.
Gutshall believes such an idea could’ve been viable if it was proposed “five or 10 years ago,” but he feels the county is too far down the current path to consider that sort of plan now.
“Where do we draw the line and say, ‘Enough is enough’ when it comes to replaying this sort of debate?” Gutshall said.
Democratic nominee Matt de Ferranti is eager to provide a contrasting view in that discussion as part of his bid against Vihstadt.
“We should not only study things forever,” de Ferranti said. “Eventually we have to act with courage and conviction to improve the community… and with a reduced cost, it’s the right thing to do to move forward.”
Yet Vihstadt argues that his obstinance on the subject is the just sort of thing that helped him win in the first place — and a clear demonstration of the independent streak he brings to the Board.
“We have to scour things, ask questions and, on occasion, say ‘No’ or hit the pause button and say ‘Not now,'” Vihstadt said. “I think a lot of people appreciate the constructive attitude I’ve had to ask questions and not just nod my head.”