At the corner of S. Walter Reed Drive and Columbia Pike sits an unfinished, deluxe bus stop. This project is the showcase premiere for a series of new, upgraded bus stops that are the Columbia Pike Super Stops. The on-again/off-again construction site has sat as a festering eyesore for visitors to the Columbia Pike Farmers Market since January 2012. Hidden behind the chain-link fence that surrounds the construction site is a small, blue sign that tells the public that the construction will be completed by “Winter 2012.” Despite the fact that we are in early November, the website suggests the stop will be done by the end of October. Missed that deadline, too.
In March, the County claimed that the delay was due to the permitting process (how can the County’s employees and contractors fail to get the proper permits?) Very little has been offered to explain the delay since then.
What does this say about the County Board’s plan to build a streetcar along Columbia Pike? Perhaps more than it might seem at first.
First, keep in mind that American governments are notoriously bad at constructing public transportation projects at a reasonable cost compared to other industrialized countries. Stephen Smith offers some theories why that’s the case here, and while one can quibble over his explanations for this phenomenon, the point remains that American governments are notoriously inefficient at big transport projects.
Second, remember that the Board’s own cost estimates have gone from $110 million to around $250 million since the project has come through the planning process. This is all before a single bid has been offered by construction firms, before businesses affected by the destruction/reconstruction of the roadway ask for help, and before the contract for the streetcars themselves have been signed. Expect that number to go up, and delays in the project will only drive up the cost further.
Most importantly, Arlington County has never before built a rail project of any scale (while Arlington officials were involved in the planning for the Metro, the County did not build it). They have yet to announce that they have even found a person to run the system, to say nothing of constructing it.
The County has no experience in building anything like the planned trolleys, and really has done nothing to inspire confidence that it is up to such a massive, complex, and expensive project. Building a bus stop (with no street to rip up, no wires to hang, no tracks to lay, no vehicles to buy) has taken seven months longer than expected, and still is not finished.
The Super Stops will be a welcome addition to South Arlington’s transit infrastructure. But the significant delays in the construction of the showcase station suggests that if the County builds a trolley, residents and businesses are in for a long, delayed, bumpy and expensive ride to completion.