A step closer to a Potomac Yard Metro Station?

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A step closer to a Potomac Yard Metro Station?
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The proposed Metrorail station at Potomac Yard took another step towards becoming reality last week with the release of a federal Environmental Impact Study, in what city officials hailed as a “major milestone.”

Commissioned by the Federal Transit Administration and the City of Alexandria, in cooperation with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the National Park Service, the study examines the need for the station and the four possible alternatives for its location. For each option, it then examines the potential impacts on the area in a number of different ways, including natural, visual, economic and fiscal.

“I would say that it’s an important document for this city and it’s a major milestone,” said Yon Lambert, the city’s director of transportation and environmental services. “It shows that we are moving on the project, it shows that there is some momentum there and we’re really excited about giving the public the opportunity to take a look at it.”

The report does not make a recommendation about which alternative should be selected. But Alternative B, which has been at the top of many city councilors’ shortlists, would allow for the highest amount of development out of the four options — more than 13 million square feet — and is the only one that would be consistent with the city’s plan to make the station easily accessible by other forms of transit.

One potential sticking point for taxpayers is the project’s $270 million price tag. The study proposes three options to raise the revenue necessary to build the Metro station at Potomac Yard: the creation of two new special tax districts, using the increased tax revenue from existing development at the site and contributions from developers.

That strategy may perturb taxpayers in Alexandria worried about their taxes being raised to make up any shortfall, but Lambert is adamant that it will not come to that, especially after the city recently secured a $50 million low-interest loan from the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank to help with the project.

“The way that the financing has been structured up to this point is that we already know that there is an amount of forecasted development from the surrounding developments that is going to provide the cash flow that we need to make our debt payments,” he said. “On Alternative B, we even have the developer going to provide a shortfall guarantee to ensure that with what the city has done in terms of the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank and other state and regional loans that are enabling us to build this station, that all of that put together creates a package that makes it very palatable for the city.

“The really important point to make from our perspective is that the $50 million loan that we have through VTIB is really a critical piece of this. It ensures that the station will be built based on the regional funding that we have as well as this and the two new special tax districts and that there will be no necessary additional local funds that have to go towards this station.”

Lambert indicated that the city will continue to explore other sources for grants and loans at both the federal and state level. One example he gave was an application for a TIGER Discretionary Grant through the Federal Highways Administration, something Alexandria has applied for in the past. As yet, no decision has been made on whether to pursue that funding source for Potomac Yard.

City Councilor Tim Lovain is a supporter of the new station at Potomac Yard, and echoed Lambert’s belief that the financing options available are feasible and not likely to place an increased tax burden on current residents of Alexandria.

“I think that the financing plans have been developed conservatively and they are consistent with what we see as the development prospects in this area,” Lovain said. “Just the construction that’s going on now and then what’s anticipated, a lot of this is through discussions with developers and what their plans are.

“They want to get the highest and best use out of their property; they’re not going to sit on this property. I think that we’re confident that this development will take place and generate the revenues anticipated.”

But some remain unconvinced by the city’s pronouncements on the costs and how they will be paid for, especially considering the sheer size of the project and how it fits into a crowded marketplace in the D.C. region.

“This is the biggest expense that the City of Alexandria has ever taken on,” former city councilor and Republican city council candidate Frank Fannon said. “Before this project, the most they’d ever spent on a project was for [the new campus at] T.C. Williams.

“This is really pressing the city’s debt guidelines. A lot of the theory of building this is that the city council is going by the theory of ‘Let’s build it and hope that everything works out and hope the costs cover themselves.’ It’s just a very big gamble that they’re taking on with taxpayers’ money.”

But Acting President and CEO Stephanie Landrum of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership believes that the Metro station at Potomac Yard will encourage more businesses to move into the area, especially as more and more are looking for transit accessibility when it comes to choosing where to acquire office space.

She said the National Industries for the Blind and the Institute for Defense Analysis already have made significant progress towards acquiring property at Potomac Yard, while more than 20 other companies have expressed an interest in following suit.

“Part of what the city has planned at Potomac Yard in expectation of this Metro is a very significant amount of new office space to be built, and so that office space won’t be built and they won’t be able to attract tenants if there’s not a Metro,” Landrum said. “This is really a major milestone to get to this draft EIS point and to be on the cusp of the preferred alternatives being chosen.

“This is sending that message to people and prospective businesses who have been thinking about Potomac Yard that this really is going to happen and that this will be not only a transit-oriented but transit-centric community with mixed amenities to include really great office space.”

The EIS is available to view in its entirety online at www.alexandriava.gov/potomacyard, while physical copies can be examined in locations across the city. Officials are inviting residents to several community open houses and public hearings to discuss the report’s findings, the next of which is on Monday April 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the Cora Kelly Recreation Center. WMATA’s board will hold a public hearing on April 30 at Cora Kelly, while city council is set to hold its own hearing May 16 at 10 a.m. at City Hall.

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