In 2004, Metro Chief Richard White predicted a “death spiral” for the Metrorail system due to chronic underfunding.
Federal and state budget disputes were preventing Metro from getting the $1.5 billion in maintenance investment it needed, leading White to warn of “a systemic service meltdown.”
Eleven years later, White’s prediction seems to be coming true. And he wasn’t the only one to see it coming.
“Right now, there’s no money for transportation funding in anyone’s budget,” Chris Zimmerman, who at the time served on both the Arlington County Board and the Metro board, told the Washington Post in 2004. “I’ve got a state government that’s happy to let everything fall into the toilet. And we’ve got local governments that have limited means to raise money. We’ve got nothing to work with.”
Zimmerman resigned from the Metro board in 2010, and stepped down from the County Board in 2014. Now serving as Vice President for Economic Development for the group Smart Growth America, Zimmerman shared some thoughts on Metro’s current woes during a phone interview with ARLnow.com.
In 2002, Zimmerman and the Metro Board were actively seeking additional capital funding for Metro from Maryland, Virginia and the federal government — but to little avail. With inadequate funding, Metro wouldn’t be able to afford the track and station maintenance and new trains needed to keep the system running smoothly.
“It was foreseeable and it was foreseen,” he said of Metro’s problems today.
What would it take to fix the chronic system breakdowns that are causing long, frustrating commutes and chasing away riders? Zimmerman said it would take a lot more than that $1.5 billion figure sought in 2004 — and would likely require intervention by the federal government in the form of increased annual funding.
“What would actually make a difference is if [the federal government] would partner with our system… we have federal folks on the board but we don’t really have a federal funding partner,” he said. The feds have been providing funds to Metro for capital improvements, but Zimmerman argues that the level of funding doesn’t reflect Metro’s critical importance in helping the federal workforce in D.C. get to their jobs.
Many of the loudest voices speaking out about Metro are calling for management and culture changes within WMATA. Some of that may come from newly-imposed federal oversight of Metro, but management change alone isn’t a panacea, according to Zimmerman.
“There are clearly going to be management issues, but… the reality is you’re not going to get an organizational culture change when you’re chronically out of funds,” he said.
What’s possible with the right level of funding? Zimmerman cited New York City’s subway system as an example of a system that was poorly maintained for decades but which was turned around starting in the 1980s thanks to investment in maintenance.
“The New York subway wasn’t a great place for a lot of years and they turned it around with a lot of new investment,” he said.
There’s a bit of irony in the lack of funding for Metro, given that the system has helped to spur the kind of transit-oriented smart growth that has filled the coffers of local governments and made Arlington and D.C. more walkable and desirable places to live.
“We have proof that this is a worthwhile investment, and at the same time we don’t channel resources, the adequate resources into upkeep of the system, which we really should be doing,” he said.
Going forward, Zimmerman recommended that Arlington continue to push for Metro improvements and funding.
“Arlington should continue to advocate for the system, particularly more federal government investment,” he said. Still, even with maintenance investment, riders and policymakers should be prepared for things to get worse before they get better.
“You can see the affect of how many years of neglect — it runs, but it doesn’t run well, it has all kinds of problems,” Zimmerman said. “Things will continue to get worse for a long time.”
Hat tip to Benjamin Freed for this Washingtonian article. Photo (top) courtesy Rebekah Solem.
Zimmerman handed in his letter of resignation in advance on Jan. 1, according to County Board Clerk Hope Halleck. At the County Board’s meeting two weeks ago, Zimmerman was the last to speak and gave a 10-minute farewell address (beginning at the 3:16:31 mark).
The main theme of Zimmerman’s speech was striking a balance between listening and leadership:
It is expected that the citizenry will be actively engaged throughout the decision-making process. That is the meaning of the Arlington Way. A board member must always be seeking input from the people of this community. That advice and counsel is no less important than the recommendations of the manager and the professional staff, which must also be carefully understood and taken into account. This is the listening part.
But listening does not mean taking a poll. It does not mean reacting to every stream of controversy fomented on listservs, in emails and on blogs before coming to a decision. In the end, each board member has to make a judgment about what is best for the community.
Leadership is the unflinching exercise of that judgment without regard to momentary swings in popularity. I believe that the great success Arlington has had is the result of the combination of leaders who actively engage the people; listen closely to what they’re saying; and then chart a path that they, in their best judgment, believe is most likely to result in the ultimate happiness of the community; and the willingness of the people in this community to let them do so.
The Board will now operate with four members until a special election is held to fill Zimmerman’s seat, which is expected to be held April 8. Running for his seat are Democrat Alan Howze, who won the party’s primary last weekend, Republican-endorsed independent John Vihstadt, Libertarian Evan Bernick, Independent Green candidate Janet Murphy and independent Stephen Holbrook.
Zimmerman announced he was resigning the day after Election Day last fall. His last Board meeting was 18 years to the week after his first. He will now join Smart Growth America as vice president of economic development.
“I will bring all of the lessons I have learned to the effort to help other communities across this country succeed in building a more sustainable, prosperous and more equitable future,” he said to conclude his speech, “and I will continue to be a proud Arlingtonian.”
Zimmerman Pushes Back Last Day — County Board member Chris Zimmerman’s last day in office will be Feb. 10, rather than late January as originally planned. As a result, the special election to replace him on the Board will likely have to be held in early April. [Sun Gazette]
Henry Elementary Wins Accolade — Arlington’s Patrick Henry Elementary School, in the Arlington Heights neighborhood, has been recognized as a Title I Distinguished School. “Henry is one of 55 schools honored for raising the academic achievement of economically disadvantaged students,” Arlington Public Schools said in an email.
Arlingtonian Tapped as Solicitor General — Arlington resident Stuart Raphael has been named as Attorney General Mark Herring’s pick for Virginia Solicitor General. Raphael, a UVA law school graduate, is husband to Arlington School Board Chair Abby Raphael. [Sun Gazette]
Va. Bars Can Now Advertise Happy Hours — Starting Jan. 29, restaurants in Virginia will be allowed to advertise the fact that they offer happy hour specials. That’s the result of new Va. Dept. of Alcohol Beverage Control rules. However, restaurants are still not allowed to advertise the price of the drinks on special. Other alcohol-related “blue laws” that remain in effect in Virginia include a ban on open bars with unlimited drinks and a ban on serving mixed drinks by the pitcher. [Washington Post]
ART Bus Schedule Changes Now in Effect — Schedule changes went into effect today (Monday) for Arlington Transit bus routes 41, 42, 45 and 77. [Arlington Transit]
Howze Wins Straw Poll — On Saturday, Arlington County Board hopeful Alan Howze won an informal Democratic straw poll at a legislative session “send-off” for Del. Alfonso Lopez. Howze captured 59 percent of the vote, while fellow Democratic candidates Cord Thomas and Peter Fallon garnered 25 percent and 16 percent respectively. [Alfonso Lopez]
Rosslyn BID’s New Website — The Rosslyn Business Improvement District launched a new website yesterday. The launch comes at about the same time as a new BID logo and after the BID hired a new executive director this year. The website currently features a Q&A with the Executive Chef of soon-to-be-opened Heavy Seas Alehouse. [Rosslyn BID]
A Facebook Page For Discussing Arlington History — I grew up in Arlington, VA, a Facebook page for Arlington history, has garnered more than 10,500 “likes.” The posts can range from discussions about the old Parkington shopping center and the putt-putt course at the corner of Wilson Blvd and N. Glebe Road, to current local news and sports scores. Page administrator Eric Dobson said sometimes the comments get “offensive,” and he’s forced to delete them, but they mostly stay positive. [Falls Church News-Press]
Washington Post Profiles Chris Zimmerman — Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman, who is stepping down next month, “is one of the reasons that the dark days of Columbia Pike and other streets in Arlington are brighter and livelier, with more pedestrians and dining choices,” writes the Post’s Patricia Sullivan. The article touches on the Columbia Pike streetcar line, quoting head of Arlingtonians For Sensible Transit Peter Rousselot as saying Zimmerman “has insufficient sensitivity to the cost of some things he has labeled smart.” [Washington Post]
Del. Hope Seeks House of Delegates Weapons Ban — Del. Patrick Hope (D-47) will introduce legislation that will ban firearms from the floor of the House of Delegates. Hope acknowledges the bill has little hope of passing the Republican-controlled House, but was inspired to do so after Del. Joe Morrissey brought an AK-47 on the floor during a debate this year. [Sun Gazette]
GGW: Arlington Is Losing a Smart Growth Advocate — Chris Zimmerman’s announced departure from the Arlington County Board means the county is losing a true smart growth advocate, says Greater Greater Washington writer Canaan Merchant. “Whoever hopes to replace them will have big shoes to fill as Mr. Zimmerman’s influence will loom large in Arlington and greater Washington for years,” he writes. “Smart growth or public transportation advocates have their work cut out for them if they want to support a candidate in Arlington who is dedicated to those issues as much as Zimmerman has for the past 18 years.” [Greater Greater Washington]
New Building Tech Hinders Emergency Communication — The technology that’s helping to make new buildings stronger is playing havoc with police and fire department radios. Arlington County is trying to lead by example by requiring a special antenna system in all new county buildings. The system allows communication among first responders and dispatchers indoors in buildings where radios would otherwise not work. [WJLA]
Piola Introduces Unlimited Pizza Brunch — It your brunch plans would be enhanced by an unlimited supply of pizza, Piola in Rosslyn (1550 Wilson Blvd) now has a deal for you. On Saturday the restaurant is debuting a “‘No Limit’ Pizza Brunch,” with unlimited helpings of more than 10 different pizzas. Pitchers of sangria and sparkling drinks will also be offered. The brunch deal will run from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Former Arlington Police PIO Joins Alexandria — Crystal Nosal, the former Public Information Officer of the Arlington County Police Department, will be joining the Alexandria Police Department in the same role on Nov. 18. During her tenure as Arlington’s PIO, Nosal was a familiar face on local news broadcasts when a significant crime or accident happened in the county.
The Right Note is a weekly opinion column 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.
Yesterday, Chris Zimmerman announced he was resigning from the County Board before his term ends next year. Zimmerman will take on a full-time job with Smart Growth America.
Unapologetically liberal, Zimmerman believes in steadily raising taxes in order to grow government. Zimmerman has never pulled punches when it comes to partisan politics either. He took regular swings at Republicans in Richmond and Washington.
In his retirement announcement, Zimmerman gave a predictably upbeat assessment of his 18-year tenure on the County Board. No one can blame him for leaving out less successful initiatives like the Artisphere, or empty ground floor retail space, or the decline of Metro while he served on the WMATA Board.
With Metro in mind, it can be noted Zimmerman has served on every transportation commission in the region — fashioning himself into a go-to guy for Democrats on the issue. Zimmerman’s most famous pet transportation project is, of course, the proposed Columbia Pike trolley. What Arlingtonians can ask today is, does Zimmerman’s retirement provide a glimmer of hope that the project could still be stopped?
It is no doubt other Board members do not share Zimmerman’s passion for it. A win by a trolley opponent in the special election would mean Libby Garvey would gain an ally and a second vote against the trolley’s construction. It will be interesting to watch what promises to be a crowded Democratic field take positions, or bend themselves in rhetorical knots not to take a position, on the trolley.
In 2010, I had the opportunity to run against Mr. Zimmerman in what looks like it may be his last campaign for public office. It goes without saying that we agree on very little politically. However, he was always friendly and considerate at our various joint appearances and other community events where our paths crossed on the campaign trail, regardless of whether voters were watching.
In particular, I recall a specific event at Thomas Jefferson Middle School where he went out of his way to be gracious to my two young daughters who were campaigning with me. While I may be cheering for Mr. Zimmerman’s signature project to come to an unceremonious end, and soon, I wish him all the best as he moves on from elected office.
Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.
(Updated at 4:05 p.m.) Chris Zimmerman is retiring from the Arlington County Board to accept a position with the group Smart Growth America.
Zimmerman is expected to step down from the Board at the end of January. A special election will be held in the spring to fill his open seat.
A resident of the Douglas Park neighborhood off Columbia Pike, Zimmerman was first elected to the County Board in 1996. He is leaving the Board to join Smart Growth America as its Vice President of Economic Development.
After being reelected in 2010, Zimmerman said he initially intended to serve out his four-year term, but those plans since changed.
“Today I am giving my three months notice,” he said at an announcement in the County Board Room in Courthouse this afternoon. “I never planned to be a County Board member indefinitely… but the kind of position that I had hoped to find has come my way a bit sooner than I would have expected.”
“I will be pleased to return to the life of a regular citizen in Arlington,” Zimmerman said. “I cannot possibly express the gratitude I feel for the tremendous honor and opportunity I have been given to serve this amazing community. It is not an easy job, but it is as energizing and rewarding as any I can imagine having spent the past couple of decades doing.”
Zimmerman’s last day on the board will be sometime in January, he said, and there will be a special election in either late March or early April. In between, the County Board will conduct business with only four members.
Zimmerman touted Arlington County’s track record of promoting smart growth, in places like the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and along Columbia Pike. He said he looks forward to sharing lessons from Arlington’s economic development success with other communities.
“Today I feel great satisfaction for what we have achieved,” he said. “Arlington is looked upon with admiration in our region and beyond.”
Zimmerman’s colleague, County Board Chair Walter Tejada, stood beside him during the announcement and said afterward that Zimmerman will be missed on the Board.
“On behalf of the citizens of Arlington County, I want to thank you for your extraordinary service to our community,” Tejada said. “Our community is better and our quality of life is better since you came into office.”
During the announcement, Zimmerman noted that he had been doing some part-time work for Smart Growth America before he was asked to join full-time. Zimmerman survived a minor political controversy last year when it was revealed that he had done some consulting work for AECOM, a conglomerate that has had various contracts with Arlington County over the past few years, including some planning-related work for the streetcar project.
Zimmerman, who was instrumental in the creation of the ART bus system, said he accepted the position 10 days ago, but waited until today to keep attention on the election.
“I didn’t want to disturb the election my party was running,” he said.
Zimmerman is the second-longest serving member of the board in the county’s history. Board Member Jay Fisette, who was re-elected Tuesday and is expected to become the next Board Chair, said the board will miss his experience and expertise on land use issues.
“The people who proceeded us on the board set the framework for smart growth in the county,” Fisette said. “Chris has led the board and the community in finding that framework and building on it.”
Tejada said that while Zimmerman’s legacy will likely be in land use and transportation, he didn’t want people to forget Zimmerman’s leadership on social issues. Tejada recounted a story from 2007 when Zimmerman championed the Board to oppose anti-immigration laws being passed in the region, including Prince William County.
“He is a strong voice to speak up for the sometimes voiceless,” Tejada said. “He will be missed in more ways than one.”
Last night’s Streetcar Town Hall meeting pitted neighbor against neighbor on the topic of the planned Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar systems.
The meeting, which was held at Kenmore Middle School, drew a near-capacity crowd estimated between 300 and 500 people. And while many opposing viewpoints were presented during the question and answer session of the event, there was one thing on which most people at the meeting seemed to agree.
Chris Zimmerman’s pay from AECOM seems pretty tiny compared to the scandal it generated.
Zimmerman was the subject of controversy in December when fellow Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey raised red flags about consulting work Zimmerman did for the Canadian division of AECOM, the construction, design and transportation conglomerate. The work, which Zimmerman disclosed, came at a time when the Board was considering adopting Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act, primarily for use on the streetcar project.
AECOM has had various contracts with Arlington County over the past few years, including some planning-related work for the streetcar project.
Disclosure of Zimmerman’s work for AECOM fueled charges of “corruption” and became a talking point for streetcar critics — which led to the following question, asked by a resident Wednesday night.
“I’m sorry that I have to ask, but how is it not an ethics violation for a member of this board to be employed by a company that has financially benefitted from this project?”
“I believe that was aimed at me,” Zimmerman quipped. He then explained that he discloses all of his outside employment, even though he really doesn’t do much of it.
“Although this is nominally a part-time job, I have not done much in the way of outside work of any kind,” Zimmerman said. “I mostly work for you.”
“I do a little bit of consulting, and I’ve tried to do that in a way that avoids things that I do here,” he continued. “So I have done work outside this metropolitan area. Most of what I do is not subject to disclosure or reporting under Virginia law. Nonetheless, I choose to disclose everything, because my commitment to ethics in this job is something that’s of great importance to me. I think that’s something you want your elected officials to do.”
Zimmerman went on to say that most of his outside work is for nonprofits and government agencies not associated with Arlington. At that point he addressed the AECOM job, and made a somewhat surprising revelation.
“I did one job last year over the course of two days, on an hourly basis, for one company,” he said of the AECOM gig. “My total billing for that was $510.”
The crowd laughed, then applauded that disclosure. The topic of AECOM did not come up again during the nearly hour and a half question and answer session.
Editor’s Note: A more thorough recap of the Streetcar Town Hall will be published later today.
Now that a prototype has been built, and now that Arlington will be replacing WMATA as the project manager, the Columbia Pike Super Stop project should proceed in a much quicker, smoother and more cost-efficient manner, county officials said Tuesday.
The project will ultimately construct a network of 24 enhanced “Super Stop” bus stops along Columbia Pike, featuring real-time bus arrival screens, lighting, heating and a modern design. Arlington County officials briefed the County Board on the status of the project at its meeting yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon, following a minor public outcry about the over $1 million construction cost of the first stop.
(The county funded just over $200,000 of the construction budget, with the rest coming from state and federal sources.)
“This is perhaps the first of its type in the Commonwealth,” Arlington County Director of Transportation Dennis Leach said of the newly-completed Super Stop, at the corner of Columbia Pike and S. Walter Reed Drive. “In any new endeavor, you end up paying more in soft costs for the prototype. When you actually get the efficiency is… when you refine it and go out replicate the facilities.”
“This was a project that was a partnership between Arlington and WMATA,” he said. “Moving forward we are going to make a shift where these are going to be Arlington-managed construction projects. We hope to dramatically reduce the construction time, and we have already fine tuned the design… to make it easier to construct in the future.”
County Board member Chris Zimmerman said WMATA’s ability to run construction projects has been reduced over the past few years.
“Its capacity having been greatly diminished undoubtedly affected their ability to deal with a small project like this one,” he said.
Zimmerman said he believes the project is on track. Crews are expected to begin work this spring on a “Barton West” Super Stop near Penrose Square, followed by work on new stops at Columbus and Dinwiddie Streets later this summer.
“I’m a lot more confident going forward that we’ll be able to deliver these things on a reasonable basis in terms of time, budget and schedule,” he said.
Libby Garvey, a critic of the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar system (which will utilize the new stops, when built), asked a few tough questions about the project. She said she was still awaiting a breakdown of the costs of the project, and was skeptical that the open-air design would serve riders in bad weather.
“I did see the stop and it’s pretty, but I was struck by the fact that if it’s pouring rain i’m going to get wet, and if it’s cold the wind is going to be blowing on me,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to be much of a shelter.”
Zimmerman suggested there might be room for refining the design to provide more shelter in the rain, but said he was otherwise pleased with the distinctive design — which, he reminded the room, was chosen during a public process, with extensive input from residents.
“I personally think they’re extremely attractive,” he said. “Part of making people confident and comfortable using transit is creating places that they feel like they want to be, even in the dark.”
In a statement released to reporters Saturday afternoon (below), Board Chair Mary Hynes and members Jay Fisette and Walter Tejada said they were “dismayed” that Garvey released an internal email she sent to them regarding what she saw as a possible conflict of interest in Board member Chris Zimmerman’s business dealings.
The Board is set to vote Monday on adoption of Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA), which would allow the county to seek a public-private partnership for its streetcar project. Garvey asked whether Zimmerman should recuse himself, since he recently started doing consulting work for AECOM, a large planning, design and construction conglomerate that has worked on numerous streetcar and light rail project.
Hynes, Fisette and Tejada say that Zimmerman properly disclosed his work, and that Garvey’s “allegation that Mr. Zimmerman has a conflict of interest… has no basis in Virginia law.”
We are dismayed by recently-elected County Board member Libby Garvey’s public release of her email correspondence to us dated December 5. Her allegation that Mr. Zimmerman has a conflict of interest when it comes to voting on a change to our purchasing procedures for transportation projects has no basis in Virginia law or in fact – as the County Attorney has clearly laid out.
Mrs. Garvey strives to connect the Board’s consideration of the Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) to the possibility of a future conflict due to Mr. Zimmerman’s recent work with AECom Canada East as a consultant on projects limited by his contract to the greater Montreal area. Being a County Board member is classified as a “part-time” job and each of us has, from time to time, done other work for which we have been paid. Each of us has disclosed that income as required by Virginia law. Mr. Zimmerman’s October letter is a reflection of his commitment to transparency, filed with the Board Clerk and given to each of us in advance of any legal requirement so that all could be aware of his limited contract with AECom Canada East.
The proposal to consider the PPTA guidelines has been up on the County website since November 9. Consideration by the County Board, scheduled for late November, was delayed to December 10 at Mrs. Garvey’s request with an invitation for outstanding issues and questions to be identified for staff and Board review. To date, the Board has received two letters — both supportive of adopting the guidelines.
In an effort to provide greater clarity to the community, the Board has drafted and made public a resolution for consideration on December 10, that accompanies the PPTA guidelines and gives further direction to the Manager. This resolution requires the Manager to provide information about any unsolicited proposals to the Board at key junctures – including posting them on the County website – and to implement a plan for public review should any proposal be deemed worthy of further consideration. Because the PPTA can be used for any transportation facility, the public review would be tailored to the specific project. All of these procedures are consistent with Arlington’s practice of checks and balances to protect the integrity of our processes.
We have every confidence that this level of transparency will provide the Board, County staff and interested Arlingtonians with the information they need to consider whether any PPTA proposal meets our goals in a way that is fiscally prudent and operationally efficient. Despite Ms. Garvey’s allegations, Monday’s proposed action presents no conflict of interest for County Board members and, again, have no basis in Virginia law.
(Updated at 2:35 p.m. on 12/7/12) County Board Member Libby Garvey was recently reelected, having run on a platform of being an independent voice on the Board. True to that promise, today Garvey raised questions about the propriety of another Board member’s business dealings, given a matter currently before the Board.
Garvey is calling for the Board to delay its scheduled vote on adoption of Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA). The vote is currently scheduled for Monday, after being deferred at the Nov. 27 Board meeting.
The County Board is considering using a private-public partnership for the design, construction and operation of the planned Crystal City streetcar. The Board would need to adopt the state PPTA in order to enter such a partnership.
Garvey, however, has expressed concerns about the PPTA, maintaining that additional public interest safeguards are needed. She cited “problems with the PPTA procurement for the [Metro] Silver Line,” and a recent report by the Southern Environmental Law Center that found “flaws” in the Virginia PPTA, as reasons why the Board needs “more time to study the implications of adopting the PPTA guidelines and to consider safeguards that will ensure full and open competition and true risk-sharing by the private sector.”
In an email sent to the rest of the Board this morning, Garvey took her concerns a step further, raising questions about whether Board member Chris Zimmerman should be voting on the PPTA, given that he recently disclosed that he’s working as a consultant for AECOM, a large construction, design and transportation conglomerate. AECOM has worked on streetcar and light rail projects in a number of U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, Minneapolis and Grand Rapids.
(A representative from the Minneapolis project spoke at a County Board work session last month about the city’s experience with its public-private partnership.)
In the email, Garvey asked Zimmerman to consider recusing himself from the PPTA vote given the appearance of a conflict of interest.
I spoke with Chris briefly yesterday afternoon about our possible vote on Monday concerning the PPTA and asked if he would consider delaying and then if he would recuse himself from the vote. At the moment, Chris sees no reason to delay or recuse himself.
So I am writing to all of you because I am very concerned about how this could look to our public and this concerns us all. Chris sent us a letter on October 25, 2012, notifying the Board of his consultant contract with AECOM Canada East. In that letter, Chris stated that “there is the possibility that at a future point it may be necessary for me to disclose my affiliation with the company in matters coming before the Board . . . and to even disqualify myself from participation in those matters.” In the letter, Chris also states that he wants “to be certain to anticipate any potential conflict of interest (or appearance of conflict) that could arise.” I think with the PPTA issue we are at that point and hope Chris will reconsider, and that we all can take a step back here.
Since I am new to the Board, I have only recently become aware of the extensive contractual relationships that have existed between AECOM and Arlington County Government for at least the last few years. With respect to Columbia Pike, AECOM has participated in the Transit Initiative Traffic Report, the peer review of capital cost estimates for the streetcar, the Columbia Pike Land Use and Housing Study and the Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Plan. AECOM also has worked on the Crystal City Multimodal Transportation Study, the Four Mile Run Demonstration Project, and the Crystal City Second Entrance and Access Study. AECOM has several offices in Arlington, briefed us tonight on streetcar vehicles, and was one of the companies to brief us about public private partnerships — the exact issue we will be voting on. I think anyone would assume that it is quite likely they will be doing additional work for the County and, should we adopt the PPTA, they will be submitting an unsolicited bid.
AECOM has been and continues to work on streetcar projects and other transportation projects in the United States, Canada and elsewhere. Its website includes a section on public private partnerships (P3) and states: “AECOM has been involved in at least 90 percent of the Unites States P3 transportation projects.” The company states that P3 projects work well when, among other factors, there is “political support from the top.”
As you well know, the Board had on its November 27th agenda adoption of guidelines for public-private partnerships, pursuant to Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA). This Act, and our proposed guidelines, would allow a company to present an unsolicited bid to construct and manage major transportation projects, including the streetcar. Given the current economy and limits of federal and state funding, the Board has been receiving information about the possibility of a public-private partnership to fund the streetcar. Last week, I asked that we not act on the proposed guidelines because the PPTA has been flagged as having flaws that (contrary to what we have been told to expect) can allow, and have allowed, the shift of risk from the private to the public sector. These are serious concerns affecting not only our streetcar decision, but also decisions on large projects in the future. We did not have sufficient information to make such a significant decision then. We still do not have sufficient information to act on this, either about necessary safeguards we should implement, nor about Chris’ relationship with AECOM should he continue to decide he need not recuse himself.
A thorough understanding about necessary safeguards aside, in light of Chris’s letter regarding his consultant relationship with AECOM Canada East, I believe that the Board should not act at this time on guidelines that address the selection of contractors on transportation projects and the risks to be borne by the contractor and taxpayers. Chris notes in his letter his desire to anticipate any future conflict of interest or appearance of conflict of interest. I believe we all want that. I also believe there clearly could be an appearance of a conflict with the vote on the PPTA guidelines. I believe we all need to know the facts regarding the County’s contractual and other business relationships with AECOM and all the pertinent details regarding Chris’s consulting relationship with AECOM Canada East. Without these kinds of disclosures, it is not possible to determine the degree to which a conflict of interest, or the appearance of conflict of interest, may exist. As we all know, in the public realm, the appearance of a conflict is as important as the facts. Perceptions are everything.
Finally, I know that we all value the excellent reputation that Arlington has earned for good government and understand that even an appearance of impropriety can tarnish that reputation. That result can easily be avoided in this situation either by waiting to vote on the guidelines until all the facts are disclosed or by Chris deciding not to vote on the PPTA guidelines. Finally, since there are reasons other than those relating to an actual or potential conflict of interest to defer voting on the guidelines, that necessary delay would also allow us the time to obtain and review the facts relating to the conflict issues.
As always, I am happy to discuss this. Libby
Arlington County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac tells ARLnow.com he doesn’t see any reason Zimmerman would need to recuse himself. He pointed out that the vote pertains to adopting guidelines, not awarding a contract. Because no contract is being awarded and there’s no financial benefit to Zimmerman, he says there’s no conflict of interest.
“My advice to Zimmerman is he doesn’t have a conflict and he doesn’t need to recuse himself. I think all five Board members are eligible to vote on this,” said MacIsaac. “There’s certainly no reason for Zimmerman to recuse himself.”
MacIsaac adds that Zimmerman didn’t immediately have to inform his fellow Board members of his work as an AECOM consultant, but he appears to have done so to allow for transparency.
“He could have just kept it to himself and not said a word and worked out the conflicts when and if one arises,” said MacIsaac.
MacIsaac noted that there may be conflicts related to Zimmerman’s consulting in the future, but they will be dealt with should they arise. He stresses that currently no issue has been found.
“I think it’s unfortunate the Conflicts Act would be raised under these circumstances,” MacIsaac said. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”
MacIsaac sent a memo to the Board yesterday (Thursday) explaining his view. An excerpt from the memo reads:
“The claim of impropriety appears to be based on a projection into the future about what an entity related to the AE Com subsidiary with which Mr. Zimmerman has an employment relationship might do in the future. Such speculative forecasting about potential conflicts in the future creates a standard few elective officials can meet, because it is not grounded in actual facts. It suggests a rule that would prohibit Board members from participating in transactions coming before the Board because their personal interests or those of their family members might one day in the future intersect with County business.”
Earlier this month, the Board held a work session with officials from other North American transit agencies who spoke of their experience with public-private partnerships for light rail systems. By and large, said Board member and leading streetcar supporter Chris Zimmerman, those experiences were positive.
A public-private partnership “can save time and money,” he told ARLnow.com. “We’re very seriously looking at the options.”
At the Nov. 15 work session, transit officials from Ottawa Denver, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City discussed both the positives and the risks, challenges and things didn’t work with their private partnerships. Such a partnership involves a contract between the local government and a private entity, with the company agreeing to design, build, operate and sometimes even finance the project — to the government’s specifications — in exchange for set payments.
The benefit for the public is that the company handles all the logistics — engineering, procurement, construction, etc. — and often can get more done with less money. The private company also has more flexibility to innovate and to accomplish goals.
In exchange for a long-term (30+ year) contract for operating the light rail system, the company agrees to certain performance benchmarks. The company and the government share some of the inherent risks in the project, instead of the government assuming all risk, like in a publicly-built system. In the end, the public retains ownership of the system.
“It’s pretty clear if you look around the world and increasingly around the county that things are moving that way,” Zimmerman said. He cited the experience of Vancouver, which was able to build a two-track light rail system through a public-private partnership for the same cost as it had budgeted to build a one-track system on its own.
Zimmerman said a public-private partnership is especially attractive for the county’s planned Crystal City streetcar, which will be funded using a TIF — tax increment financing, derived from gains in commercial real estate values in Crystal City.
“[Crystal City] might be very well poised for this kind of approach,” he said.
It’s possible that the Columbia Pike streetcar could be built using a public-private partnership, but it’s less likely since the county is seeking federal funds for the project and since it is further along in the process.
Zimmerman said the county hopes to have the Columbia Pike streetcar up and running sometime between 2017 and 2018, and the Crystal City streetcar operating between 2018 and 2019. The construction process for each will take about two years.
At its meeting Tuesday night, the County Board deferred consideration of a measure that would allow the county to pursue public-private partnerships under a 1995 Virginia law. The Board will take the matter back up at its December meeting, after Board members Libby Garvey and Walter Tejada expressed some reservations about the method by which the county will award such contracts.
Also on Tuesday, Board Chair Mary Hynes said the county expects to hear back from the Federal Transit Administration regarding federal funding for the Columbia Pike streetcar at some point in the first half of 2013. Zimmerman said he’s reasonably confident the project will move on the the next stage of the FTA’s funding process, but was concerned that federal funds might be hard to come by in light of proposed budget cuts.
“We think the project should score pretty well using the criteria that the federal government is using,” he said. “Obviously we’d be more confident if there was more funding.”
Arlington Schools Make Washington Post List — All four Arlington public high schools have been ranked in the top 1 percent of all high schools in the U.S. by the Washington Post. The Post’s “Challenge Index” ranked H-B Woodlawn 48th in the nation and 2nd in the region, the highest ranking among the Arlington schools. [Arlington Public Schools]
Bishop O’Connell Softball Team Wins State Championship — For the 17th time in 19 years, the Bishop O’Connell Knights softball team has captured the Virginia Independent Schools Division I state championship trophy. The team had a 27-1 record this year. [Sun Gazette]
Arlington Named Bike-Friendly City — Arlington has been named the 23rd most bike-friendly “city” in the country by Bicycling Magazine. The publication looked at areas with “robust cycling infrastructure and a vibrant bike culture.” [Bicycling]
Zimmerman to Visit France — Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman will be visiting three cities in France next month in order to study ways to make Arlington less car-dependent. [Transportation Nation]
Low Attendance at Tax Rate Hearing — At a public hearing last night, it only took half an hour for the County Board to hear all the speakers for and against raising Arlington’s real estate tax rate. In the end, those in favor of raising the tax rate to pay for additional government services outnumbered those who wanted less spending. [Sun Gazette]
Frida Kahlo Exhibit Closes Sunday — Arlington’s exclusive and much-publicized exhibit of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s personal photos will come to a close this weekend. Hours have now been extended on Sunday, the last day of the exhibit at Artisphere (1101 Wilson Blvd). The remaining hours are: Friday 4:00 to 11:00 p.m., Saturday 12:00 to 11:00 p.m., Sunday 12:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Zimmerman: Metro Needs More Support — Arlington County Board member and former Metro Board member Chris Zimmerman says Metro needs more funding from governments, especially from the Commonwealth of Virginia and the federal government. Zimmerman also recommends keeping any potential fare increase small and making sure it doesn’t “punish the folks who take the shortest trips.” [Greater Greater Washington]
Crystal City Apartment Building Sold — The 442-unit Buchanan apartment building in Crystal City has changed hands for $175 million. The property was sold by Archstone to Dweck Properties, the same firm that bought the Crystal Plaza Apartments from Archstone last year. [CoStar]
Green Games Saved Some Green — Forget the Hunger Games, Arlington County says its “Green Games” competition was a blockbuster in terms of savings. The sustainability challenge saved $2 million in avoided energy and water costs, the county announced at an awards ceremony on Thursday. [Arlington County]
Arlington County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) and representatives from mall owner Simon Property Group were all on hand for the ceremony. Also present were reps from 350Green, the Los Angeles-based company that manufactures the charging stations.
The charging stations are located on level 2 of the mall parking garage. They can partially charge an electric vehicle in as little as 90 minutes, while the car’s owner shops.
Photo courtesy the Office of Rep. Jim Moran