City unveils models of possible Potomac Yard Metro sites

City unveils models of possible Potomac Yard Metro sites

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)

As officials debate where to put the planned Potomac Yard Metro station, they are giving residents a chance to weigh in as well, putting several physical and virtual models on display inside City Hall.

But a few residents are looking beyond the future station’s appearance, seeking reassurances that, whichever site the city picks, the design, construction and projected nearby development all goes according to plan.

They need only look north to see what can go wrong. In recent weeks, a political firestorm has erupted in Arlington, where the planned Columbia Pike streetcar project is now projected to run more than $100 million over budget.

Alexandria, meanwhile, is in the midst of a federally mandated environmental impact study, a process where city leaders and experts from various agencies look at the pros and cons of each potential site for the new station, said Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks.

“The Potomac Yard Metro is basically one of the biggest transportation projects the city has in front of it,” Jinks said. “We’re looking at all facets of each alternative. All of them have their own pluses and minuses.”

The models will be displayed on a rotating basis until June 3. Staff hope to have a draft of their report outlining the various proposals by early fall, which will trigger a public hearing process that culminates with a recommendation by city council in January 2015.

City Councilor Justin Wilson said there is an important distinction to make when comparing Potomac Yard with the Columbia Pike streetcar: How it’s being paid for.

“We have always intended for this to be funded by development revenue, so me and my neighbors aren’t paying for the Potomac Yard Metro, it’s funded by the development there,” he said. “And the rating agencies not only didn’t bat an eye about the funding proposal, but were very supportive.”

And City Councilor Tim Lovain said that when you look at transportation projects as a whole, Alexandria has been more careful with expensive investments.

“With the Metro station site and also our high-capacity transit corridors, we’ve always taken cost into consideration as a major factor,” Lovain said. “It’s one of the reasons we chose bus rapid transit for the Route 1 corridor.”

Lovain said there’s always a possibility for cost overruns when constructing an infrastructure project of Potomac Yard’s magnitude, but risks are minimized with smart planning and budgeting.

“There is of course a danger that costs will increase over time on construction projects, especially when you have a long timeframe and you have a lot of uncertainty about the cost of materials,” he said. “So it’s usually smart to build in a lot of contingencies to your construction cost estimates.

“I think the city is being careful with its cost estimates, but there is some uncertainty to it. You just need to give yourself some room on the front end so you don’t get caught with increases.”

But former City Councilor Frank Fannon, who voted for the original plan calling for a Metro station in Potomac Yard, noted that the planned development of the neighborhood is not set in stone. Taxpayers could be caught holding the bag if developers get cold feet, he warned.

“We’re all banking on this tremendous commercial development that will help pay the $300 million plus interest, but I’m not convinced that’s going to happen necessarily,” Fannon said. “There’s so much regional competition for businesses … and if it doesn’t cover the cost of the Metro station, the taxpayers will be on the hook for it.”

Resident Kevin Posey, a former member of the city’s traffic and parking board and a public transportation advocate, said officials have been over-thinking the issue. He wants councilors to stop considering more elaborate plans, like an elevated station or shifting the nearby CSX railroad tracks, and go with the cheapest and easiest plan to implement.

“You had some folks pushing an alternative that was probably not going to happen anyway just because of the practicalities like dealing with the National Park Service or CSX,” Posey said. “It’s an old engineering principle, KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. Let’s just keep it simple and get it done.

“Like everything else in this city, we talked far too much about it and now we actually need to start getting stuff done.”