This past weekend, Alexandria city officials held a mobile work session in Potomac Yard and discussed many of the aspects of the development. None garnered more attention than transportation and the City’s interest in constructing a new Metro Station.
When the new station was proposed, it seemed a reasonable addition. In fact, in the early Potomac Yard discussions decades ago, a station was included. Repeated reductions in density rendered construction of the station uneconomic. Belatedly density was increased and the station was put back on the table.
Unfortunately, it is one thing to propose an initiative and quite another to actually build it. The City seems to have gotten way ahead of itself on the project concentrating on how to fund it in an era of no Federal or State money instead of how it could actually be constructed given the constraints of the site.
There are now three alternatives under discussion. Alternative A puts the station very close to Potomac Greens but not very close to the bulk of the residential or commercial space in Potomac Yard itself. Alternative B puts the station much closer to the users, particularly the commercial space, but intrudes into the George Washington Parkway easements which the Park Service says they will not vacate. Alternative D flips the station to the other side of the rail tracks requiring taking private property and massive construction costs to relocate the Metro tracks and the main line rail tracks owned by CSX.
Cost projections for A are $195 million, B $250 million and D $450 million. The owner of the Potomac Yard retail center has agreed to provide $50 million for the project if Alternative B is selected so A and B may be actually very close in cost to the City. That is certainly important for the Potomac Yard residents who will be taxed to pay off the City bonds that finance the construction.
Public projects are often subject to this process. American politicians, our own included, are fond of making sweeping assertions. “If Alexandria is truly an Eco- City then it needs a Metro Station in Potomac Yard,” would be a fanciful example.
As the process unfolds and the obstacles appear, the political leaders and the staff engage in a series of twists and turns to meet and overcome the problems. Inevitably the resulting final plan is marked by huge cost overruns and massive dislocations from the original assumptions. If these were mentioned at the beginning then no one would have looked at the project in the first place.
Mark Eaton, who served on the City’s School Board for many years referred to this process as Maximum Feasible Sub-optimization. Public bodies full of well-meaning human beings have this knack of losing the big picture as they frantically attempt to stem the leaks that are threatening to sink the project. It fits perfectly to what appears to be going on at Potomac Yard.
Rather than wasting time on overcomplicated and hugely expensive “solutions”, it should be time to concentrate on the reasonable.
First, let us take a really hard look at the preferred Alternative B and see if there can be ways in which it could be made acceptable to the Park Service. It would have been much better to consult the Park Service first but the City did not do that and the situation is what it is.
The Park Service has an interest in getting cars off the roads. Driving the GW Parkway in rush hour is no fun and will get worse as Potomac Yard develops. The Park Service has an interest in beautifying the whole of the land on the Potomac Yard side of the Parkway. There certainly seems to be grounds for discussion and compromise. It would be far cheaper to spend $5 million or so more on buffering and landscaping then $250 million more in relocating tracks.
Perhaps the City’s friends in Congress could help the process along. They do not have money to throw at the project but they do have their good faith to offer as mediators and conciliators.
Second, let us take a really hard look at expanded bus rapid transit alternatives. If the Metro Station is going to cost so much more, then it opens up spending a bit more on the buses. Perhaps there is a way to speed circulating buses in Potomac Yard to the Crystal City or Braddock Road stations that might have looked too expensive if a metro station were a reality but now might be a more feasible alternative.
We encourage the City to be creative and flexible. Let’s not fall into Mr. Eaton’s stereotype yet again. Let’s look at the alternatives and optimize the moving of people to where they need to go in the most feasible and cost effective way.