Infrastructure Investment Under Fire in Arlington

Once again, Washington DC has become the Petri dish, the lightening rod and the clearest example of a cross-country issue. After a decade-long effort to install streetcars, Arlington’s city council abruptly cancelled the project just days after the city’s first non-Democrat mayor since 1983—and vociferous streetcar opponent—John Vihstadt, was elected. Infrastructural investments are tough financially—and politically.

Courtesy of Arlington Streetcar

Courtesy of Arlington Streetcar

Over the last few years, high oil prices have made public transportation increasingly attractive. With the exception of this last month’s drop in oil prices, that has been true in San Francisco, Los Angeles and even Atlanta. Each of these cities has a light rail line that carries over 100,000 people per day, and there are plenty of cities with less extensive but burgeoning systems. While they still pale in comparison to the commuter total, these lines are making an increasingly bigger dent in the nation’s daily commute.

However, the exorbitant cost of light rail lines and the political difficulty of public investments are at the top of a list of problems facing any such projects. Let’s face it, the public has a rather dubious opinion of its elected leaders at the moment (I’m not here to argue whether it’s justified or not—but if you don’t believe that it’s any different than the past, just look it up).

The Arlington city council decided to install two streetcar lines down Columbia Pike and around Crystal City. According to the Washington Post, “The Columbia Pike streetcar would have run from the Skyline area of Fairfax to Columbia Pike and then to the Crystal City Metro stop, where it would have connected with the Crystal City line. The Columbia Pike streetcar would have ridden on rails embedded in the right lane of traffic in both directions, while the Crystal City line would have run on streets parallel to Route 1.” Opposition cited the Columbia Pike route as problematic, asserting that it would interfere with traffic and provide little if any benefit.

Courtesy of Arlington Streetcar

Courtesy of Arlington Streetcar

But city planners and project proponents were “caught flat footed when organized opposition to the streetcar surfaced in just the last year or so,” according to Jay Fisette, the Democratic Arlington County Board Chairman. Vihstadt, a Republican-endorsed Independent, used an anti-streetcar plank as a major part of his mayoral campaign. (So, I’m not really sure how you could have been flat-footed… but that’s another story).

The boondoggle of the District’s streetcar on H Street has probably loomed heavy over the Arlington project. The Silver Line on the Metro system hasn’t been much better. Although because it’s well recognized that the Metro is a huge boon, that one’s easier to sell. Running way over budget and way, way, behind schedule has been a shocker for taxpayers not used to new infrastructural investments.

Unfortunately, though, that’s just the nature of infrastructure development. For instance, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956—also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956—authorized $25 billion for 41,000 miles of highway to be built over ten years. The original design for the interstate system took 35 years to complete. And now totaling 47,714 miles (just 16% miles more) it cost more than twice as much as expected—$58 billion in 1956 dollars ($425 billion in 2006 dollars).

Less anecdotally, a comprehensive study in 2002 showed that, on average, infrastructural construction projects were 28% over budget. This study found no change over the 70 years it spanned, and only found a minor increase in developing nations. Its final conclusion was that these systemic underestimations on projects “is best explained by strategic misinterpretation, i.e., lying.” It hasn’t changed over the last decades and probably won’t any time soon.

Sure, some people bitched and moaned about the inflated cost of the interstate system. Now, however, opposing infrastructure development seems to be a politically savvy move for some.

Arlington’s city council rejecting the streetcar was certainly that—for any polemic issue, there are risks and rewards. It also symbolizes the broader battle between the importance of infrastructure projects and the inherently underestimated costs. (Maybe we represent the country in more ways than Congress).

Change isn’t easy. And intergenerational investments like massive infrastructure are painful for those putting up the cash. Either way, it looks like this project is in the woodshed. Whether it’s for better or for worse, I’ll let the pundits project and future generations record.

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