Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

I finally got a chance to take shelter at Arlington’s infamous $1 million bus stop. It’s the one that drew international mockery last spring in what might someday make a Jeopardy category of boondoggles.

It feels small for a scandalous object (I’d expected graffiti defacing it). But it is sleek and has nifty maps.

The so-called Super Stop is a planned series of 21st-century sidewalk oases along Columbia Pike that planners hope to incorporate into a multi-mode system including the controversial streetcar. The stop offers electronic real-time bus arrival information, ample seating, safe lighting, newspaper boxes and a raised sidewalk to ease bus boarding.

The project was frozen in April after an outcry when the ARLNow blog attracted 12,000 readers to its story quoting a county official saying the first copy at Walter Reed Drive cost $575,000 for construction and fabrication and another $440,000 for construction management and inspections.

Critics pounced, lambasting not only the price but its stingy shield from the elements, as County Board member Libby Garvey complained. “If a bunch of public servants run up a bill of $1 million,” I was told by Wayne Kubicki, an activist with the Arlington Civic Federation, “an alarm ought to have gone off, either at the county or Metro or somewhere in between, particularly in this economic climate.”

The project was defended as an investment by some design professionals quoted in Landscape Architecture Magazine. Arlington Transportation Director Dennis Leach said the community wanted “an open, airy design” that is transparent.

Officials pointed out that Arlington’s share of the price tag was only $200,000. (The rest was from the Virginia Transportation Department, which is well aware that Columbia Pike is the commonwealth’s busiest bus corridor.)

And the first edition of the Super Stop required extra design and set-up costs that will shrink once builders get the hang of things.

Late last month, County Manager Barbara Donnellan announced the launch of an independent, outside review of the design, financials and community consultation process.

“We will move forward with this project only after we are certain that we can produce well-designed stops for significantly less cost in far less time than it took to produce the Walter Reed Super Stop,” she said. “Arlington County government takes its responsibility to taxpayers seriously.

With all the ridicule and political brickbats, it seems Donnellan had little choice but to spend more county money farming out the review. That reminded me that a couple of years ago kibitzers like Kubicki proposed that the county create an inspector general’s office with a staff of two or so, an approach with which Fairfax County has achieved savings. It’s a position for which the Super Stop probe might be tailor-made.

But county spokeswoman Mary Curtius told me the manager insisted on an independent review, and the cost of such a review is not clear since the contract —with completion expected by year’s end — has not been awarded. (The Sun-Gazette reported that a related contract to survey the Pike’s bus users cost $7,500.)

My guess is the review contractor will bring expertise in transportation and construction perhaps lacking in the in-house staff. But another way to view the situation is that critics who home in on a boondoggle wouldn’t be placated by just another in-house opinion. That’s the price we taxpayers pay to restore credibility.