Our View: Potomac Yard Metro obfuscation erodes trust

Our View: Potomac Yard Metro obfuscation erodes trust
Renderings of the Potomac Yard metro from 2016.

The general erosion of trust is one of the saddest components of our modern era.

It takes a long time to gain trust; conversely, trust can be lost in a flash. Trust can also erode over time, so quietly that we don’t even know it’s happening, like a puff of wind that carries away a microscopic bit of soil.

 Into the midst of our heated local election for mayor and council comes the Potomac Yard Metro issue, which increasingly looks like a betrayal of trust between our local government and Alexandria residents.

To recap: A Metro station at Potomac Yard has been discussed for 20 years, but has been slow to actualize. It’s long been touted as an economic driver for Alexandria’s future, with anticipated major development a key factor in the city agreeing to shoulder the considerable cost of the station. Potential funding sources have continued to shift and remain somewhat vague.

A special tax district was established to help pay for the station, and additional density for nearby housing construction has been granted. In April, city council approved an increase in the station’s cost, from $268 million to $320 million, then in May the bombshell was dropped that the south entrance, the one most accessible to nearby residents and businesses, had been eliminated from the project’s design.

Since then, many residents, particularly those who live nearby and have been paying additional taxes toward the project, have reacted with outrage and have been trying to get to the bottom of who knew what and when.

When the city was not forthcoming, residents filed a Freedom of Information Act request. After the city responded saying the request would cost $810, the residents launched a GoFundMe campaign and raised the needed funds in hours. Their organization and resilience have been impressive.

The FOIA was released this week, and it raises serious, trust-related concerns:

• WMATA’s John Thomas told city staff on April 9, 2018 that the south mezzanine’s elimination didn’t need to be kept secret under the non-disclosure agreement, yet City Manager Mark Jinks informed council on April 12 – three days later – that elimination of the south entrance was still secret per WMATA.

• City staff continued to discuss concealing this information from the public on April 9, even after Thomas sent his email saying the design was “not proprietary from a procurement stand point.” City staff worked to have a rendering showing the elimination of the south mezzanine pulled after WMATA had posted it online.

• Vice Mayor Justin Wilson recently told the Times that prior to the May 2018 announcement the entrance had been eliminated, “We knew there was a menu of things that could bring down the cost – we didn’t know what would ultimately be decided.” Yet in an email exchange between Wilson and City Manager Mark Jinks dated July 14, 2017, Jinks tells Wilson, “with one less ped bridge and mezzanine to build the construction time should shrink.” This reference is not to a menu of options, but to the very specific change that city staff, nine months later, was still working to keep from the public.

 • While Wilson was privy to detailed information about changes to the station in July, 2017, it is not clear what information was released to Mayor Allison Silberberg and the rest of council at that time. The email exchange between Jinks and Wilson referenced materials to be shared with council, but those materials were not released in the FOIA request, so it is unclear whether all of council had this detailed information last year or whether the vice mayor had access to information that his colleagues did not.

The residents of Alexandria should have been told last summer that the southern mezzanine was on the chopping block, and there should have been a community dialogue around whether or not this deletion was acceptable.

The issue of trust has come up repeatedly during this election campaign, and was singled out several times during the city council debate at Frances Hammond Middle School on Tuesday night.

Unfortunately, people don’t – and really can’t – trust their government when their leaders hide important information and leave them without a voice in crucial decisions.