At the July 16, 2013 meeting of the Arlington County Board, Libby presented the following remarks. Watch them here or read on for the full text.
The item before us is an agreement with Fairfax, but the issue is really about the streetcar. I’d like to start by saying that in my 15 years on the School Board, I never voted to build a large project until the Board knew just what it was getting, what was needed to build it, and where the money was coming from. This includes long planned projects.
One building we planned for at least 6 years and voted on several times no longer made financial sense when we took a last look, so despite that planning, we did not build it. This approach is why our schools are known for building on time and on budget. It is the way I like to work as an elected official. I think it is how everyone at this table likes to work.
Except, it seems, for this one large project, the streetcar. It’s a very un-Arlington kind of approach: we’re not quite sure what we need to build for the streetcar, we’re not sure what it will cost (except that the costs keep going up) and we really don’t know where the money is coming from. But we’re determined to build it, no matter what.
Let’s think a minute about the all-important question of how we are going to pay for this. We just lost the federal small starts funding: $75 million. On top of that, the cost is re-estimated at $310M, which means we now have a financial hole that’s $135M deeper than we thought last winter. Where is that money coming from? If we have a plan, I’d like to hear it and I’m sure our citizens would like to know as well, because if our hopes for outside funds are dashed or fall short, it is the taxpayers of Arlington who will have to pay.
There are other issues we’ve not explored with our community like we should. I think few citizens have thought through the daily commute. In Portland some people prefer the bus to the streetcar because they are sure it will get where it’s going. The streetcar gets too often stuck behind some problem on the track. And you can often walk faster. There are safety issues to think about. We get reassurances about rapid towing, but what will happen when something blocks the track or when the power goes out and the whole system stops leaving multiple streetcars to tow? It won’t happen often, but when it does it likely will be in the middle of a major weather or other crisis. Whatever happens, I’m sure our first responders will make it work, but at what cost? Have we ever asked them?
This is a smart Board that works for a smart County. There may be more data/policy wonks in Arlington than just about anywhere, but on this one issue, we don’t seem to want much information.
We have done no cost-benefit analysis and no comparison of what other systems might accomplish at a lower cost. Ask just about anyone in this community and they will agree that, of course you do a cost benefit analysis before moving forward on a big project. That’s how you are sure it makes economic sense. We sometimes hold up that return on investment study done for the streetcar, but that’s not a comparative cost benefit analysis to tell us this choice makes the most sense.
Arlington is meant to excel at community engagement, yet we talk about meetings held years ago where there was never a good informed discussion about transit options. In fact, there could not be because that was years ago. It is now when we have the most up to date information about what other options there are and what all this will cost.
This is the time for that discussion. Few people really paid attention years ago because this was so far in the future. I can tell you more and more people are paying attention because they realize this might really happen. According to our mail, they are not happy. Since our last count, their comments to our office have been running about 4 to 1 against the streetcar. I’ll be the first to say that’s not a valid sample, but I think my colleagues must remember all the hands that shot up in opposition to the streetcar at our last walking town meeting. Not a single person was for it. It startled me a bit, but it is pretty much what I see in every general group of citizens when the topic comes up.
Yet we’re plowing forward, with no cost benefit analysis and no informed public discussion.
This is not the Arlington I know, and, really, it is not the Board I know. I’ve known and watched each of you for 20 or more years now.
So, please, let us just take a deep breath and pause to get a good independent comparative cost benefit analysis done, share it with our public and have a dialog. This will be their transit system, not ours. And our taxpayers must pay for it, either directly or indirectly. Now is exactly the time to do this. We are looking at a total bill between $255 and $400 million dollars by the time we’re done: that’s a lot of tradeoffs for things we won’t do. We owe them that information and that discussion.
With that, I will make a substitute motion: I move to defer this item until an independent cost benefit analysis of the streetcar has been done, shared with our public and discussed with the large Arlington community.