Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpThe proposed streetcar continues to roil Arlington and may be put to the populist test in a November referendum.

The latest bone of contention in this byzantine debate is a $97,000 study the county commissioned projecting that the Columbia Pike corridor gains $3.2 billion to $4.4 billion in development if the streetcar linking Bailey’s Crossroads to Pentagon City is made real. That’s nearly $3 billion more than the cheaper alternative favored by backers of a bus rapid transit system.

“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” sneered Peter Rousselot, the transportation attorney who heads the anti-streetcar Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. Having spent a year calling for a new cost-benefit analysis of the streetcar favored by a county board majority, Rousselot greeted this study by shooting the messenger.

His group compiled 15 reasons why the New York City-based HR&A Advisors’ product is a “shameless whitewash of the county board’s desired outcome,” their objections ranging from its avoidance of the term “bus rapid transit” to accepting instructions from managers on the study’s scope.

“An essential ingredient of a truly independent analysis is whether the consultant has freedom to recommend either the streetcar, BRT, or some other transit option,” Rousselot told me. “It was clear from the very outset of this consulting assignment that HR&A lacked that freedom.”

Eric Balliet, spokesman for Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services, said the game wasn’t rigged and that due diligence in the task order requires that employees work with a contractor on methodology and focus. “We selected HR&A because of their expertise in measuring the economic and fiscal impacts of major infrastructure projects,” he said. “They are an internationally respected firm that puts its reputation on the line with each study. We’re confident HR&A conducted a rigorous and extensive analysis, and we stand by the integrity of this study.”

Arlington Transportation Commission member Christopher Slatt also dismissed the idea of a “cooked” study, noting that all relevant players are “well aware of various opinions on the streetcar, and that no developer is led astray by calling something enhanced bus service rather than bus rapid transit.”

Eric Rothman, president of HR&A, told me his team “did not get paid a success fee.” In fact, county staff were “less engaged than most of our clients in challenging us regarding our findings and conclusions,” he said. Even before the study began, critics were talking about bias, he added.

HR&A is one of several prequalified consultants selected by Arlington Economic Development through a competitive process three years ago. Rothman is puzzled that critics pounced on the contract’s requirement that managers sign off on deliverables before payment, a practice his firm considers “pro forma and normal for government contracts.”

The charge that his team “cherrypicked data on four systems is factually incorrect,” Rothman said. They examined data, not just author conclusions, from 16 relevant studies of the real estate impacts of transit systems, conducted detailed research on real estate conditions and interviewed property owners, retailers and developers.

“A lot of the evidence speaks for itself,” he said. “Though an enhanced bus would be a positive, better than the baseline for development, the streetcar would have a bigger impact because of its permanent infrastructure, and because it would differentiate Arlington from competing locations in the region, including Fairfax and Loudoun County, in attracting growth based on walkable, rail-accessible places.”

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Perhaps the oldest Arlingtonian died last week, a week shy of 107. Walter Walsh was notable for battling gangsters as an FBI agent and as a stellar marksman competing in the 1948 Olympics. In recent years he was a daily regular at the Metro 29 Diner and beloved by its wait staff.