Editorial: Chinquapin pool price isn’t just sticker shock

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Editorial: Chinquapin pool price isn’t just sticker shock
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(File photo)

A new cost estimate is in for the proposed Olympic-sized swimming pool at Chinquapin Recreation Center, and unsurprisingly, the numbers are not pretty.

Hughes Group Architects, hired last May to provide a feasibility study for the project, has revised its initial estimate of $20 million — made just four months ago — to $30 million for the new pool and more than $40 million for the overall project. The numbers seem to have caught city planners off guard and raise a host of questions, such as:

– Why did Hughes Group estimate the project to cost a “reasonable” $20 million in November, and what led to the latest spike in projections?

– What gives us confidence that these new numbers are accurate?

– City staff had to be aware that Arlington County’s 50-meter pool project is now on hold after cost estimates — also provided by Hughes Group Architects — kept spiraling upward. Why did Alexandria choose to retain this same firm?

– Is it really feasible to build a 50-meter pool at this particular site, given the location of a sewer line and city storm water management facilities there?

– If city officials are determined to build a 50-meter pool in Alexandria, is there another site that might work better?

It is vital that these questions be satisfactorily answered before city officials spend more tax dollars on the project. This need is more urgent given the city’s history of major capital improvements projects costing considerably more than initial projections.

Examples of previous overruns abound, including the newly opened Jefferson-Houston elementary school, which cost $44.2 million — 23 percent more than the original $36 million budget allotment. Similarly, the Charles Houston Recreation Center project, with an initial price tag of $4.2 million for an add-on and renovation, wound up costing $15.3 million in 2009 — almost four times the original projection.

Alexandria can’t afford for capital projects to keep coming in millions over budget. Every dollar spent is a dollar wrested from the pockets of our city’s residents in taxes and fees. It’s a dollar that could be used to provide any number of services, such as housing vouchers so more low-wage workers could afford to work and live in Alexandria.

We will say yet again: Budgeting is philosophy. What the city prioritizes reflects what we as Alexandrians care about. An Olympic-sized pool is a worthwhile goal, and would benefit our city in numerous ways. But this project should only proceed if and when the city gets a true handle on the cost.

Mark Jinks is off to a good start as acting city manager. Perhaps he should train the same green eyeshades he used to craft next year’s budget onto the Chinquapin project. Jinks and his staff need to decide whether the current cost estimates are accurate, whether a project of that funding level is feasible, and whether or not to retain Hughes going forward.

Alexandria needs to examine its processes and find a way to bring future building projects in at or under budget. The Chinquapin pool is a good place to start.

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