Potomac Yard Metro station enters new phase of development, questions still remain

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Potomac Yard Metro station enters new phase of development, questions still remain
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The proposed Metrorail station at Potomac Yard made significant progress at Alexandria City Council last week as city councilors voted unanimously in favor of the so-called Alternative B but raised concerns about the financing of the project as it moves forward.

The vote came at a special legislative meeting in council chambers, and was in favor of the northernmost of the available options for a new site. In addition, city councilors approved a plan that does not allow access for construction vehicles to the site from the George Washington Parkway as well as work towards a mitigation framework for the parkway and a net benefits agreement with the National Park Service.

It also authorized City Manager Mark Jinks to allow the final Environmental Impact Study to proceed, while the city’s agreement with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will be amended to authorize a process of procuring and selecting a contractor for designing and building the station. The vote also authorized Jinks to enter into a memorandum of understanding with WMATA that outlines the roles and responsibilities of both parties during the design and construction processes.

“Today’s decision to select Alternative B is very significant step forward not just for the construction of the station itself, but for Alexandria as a whole,” said Mayor Bill Euille after the vote in favor of the project, which has an estimated construction cost of $268 million. “This project is critical to our future economic development, transportation needs and quality of life.

“I thank our project partners from the Federal Transit Administration and the National Park Service; city staff for their diligence and teamwork; and all the residents and stakeholders who’ve been engaged in the community processes leading up to the selection of the Alternative B site.”

In spite of the positivity after the unanimous decision, there are still plenty of uncertainties that surround the Potomac Yard project, especially in its financing.

Currently, the city is expecting to receive $69.5 million from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, but the actual amount of funding has yet to be officially voted on by the NVTA board of directors. Jinks mentioned that in a preliminary review by the NVTA, the Potomac Yard project scored very well compared to other projects in nearby regions also asking for contributions, but city councilors expressed their reservations given that the number still has not been finalized.

In addition, Jinks said the city would be applying for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, a decision on which would likely come by the winter of this year, according to the city’s Director of Transportation and Environmental Services Yon Lambert.

However, Jinks was keen to temper expectations of the city receiving much in terms of a TIGER grant, citing data from last year’s round of grants that showed for every dollar that was awarded, 16 times as many dollars were requested by transportation projects around the country.

Another cause of concern surrounding the financing of the Metro station is developer JBG’s desire to renegotiate their contract with the city to contribute up to $72 million to help with operating costs and debt service. Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg repeated her view that their “feet should be held to the fire” and that they must honor the contract they signed with the city.

The fate of the Tier II Special Tax District in Potomac Yard that has been recently protested against was not decided at the special legislative meeting, with Jinks noting that any increased taxation would not commence until the calendar year after the station is opened. However, several city councilors stated that they would be keen to re-examine the makeup of the Special Tax Districts, especially as an act of council would be required to allow them to levy taxes.

In spite of there being some remaining doubts surrounding the finances, the project moves forward and will next be voted on by the WMATA board of directors, of which Euille is a member. They are expected to vote on their preferred alternative in the fall, having held a public hearing on the topic last month.

The city will also continue to work with NPS to complete an agreement on a mitigation framework for the George Washington Parkway, while the final EIS is expected by the end of the year. That report will look to address issues such as the impact on the parkway, the effect of construction on nearby neighborhoods and any other residents’ concerns.

When the final EIS is issued, the Federal Transit Administration and possibly NPS will issue a Record of Decision, which will put forward recommendations on next steps. Once that is issued, and if the city is cleared to begin construction, it can break ground on the new station.

There may be plenty of steps left and plenty of uncertainty, especially surrounding the financing of the project, but city councilors are hopeful that things can fall into place quickly.

“Nothing happens overnight,” Euille said. “It takes a while, but good things come to those who wait. We have certainly waited a long time, but now we have to wait and get that station designed, built and open, with a target date to have it open if not late 2018, then early 2019. That is certainly a goal and objective that we’re going to continue to adhere to. We have a lot to be proud of, but a lot of work still to be done.”

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