Arlington’s $1 Million Bus Stop

Photo credit: Washington Post

One million dollars for a new bus stop in Arlington County? No wonder so many people regard mass transit as a boondoggle. “Is this made of gold?” the Washington Post quotes one commuter as asking.

No, actually, the bus stop near Columbia Pike and Walter Reed Drive, is made mainly of concrete and glass. It does have heating elements embedded in the floor as well as an electronic route-viewing map, but the roof won’t provide much shelter if the wind blows in the wrong direction. The bus stop, designed to shelter up to 15 people at a time, is the first of 24 that will accommodate both buses and Arlington’s long-planned street cars.

Actual construction and fabrication for this stop cost $575,000, while another $440,000 went to construction management and inspections. “When you do a prototype, you end up heavily front-loading on the costs,” explained Dennis Leach, Arlington’s transportation director. “These are more like high-capacity bus or rail stops.” Still, according to the Post, the county has budgeted an average of $900,000 for the other 23 stops.

Bacon’s bottom line. Wow! It’s hard to imagine how even a large bus stop — one that provides decent protection from the elements — could cost more than $100,000. For $900,000 each, these things should be gold plated!

It is imperative that Virginia’s metropolitan regions expand their mass transit services to provide mobility and access for a population that increasingly finds automobiles an unattractive or unaffordable transportation option. But mass transit systems also must be fiscally sustainable. Most local governments will remain under severe fiscal stress for years to come and the federal government will not long be able to continue subsidizing the up-front capital costs. (Arlington hopes Uncle Sam will chip in 30% of the $250 million cost of the street car project.)

Riders of the 37-year-old Washington Metro rail system have discovered in recent years that mass transit infrastructure wears out eventually and must be replaced. Metro officials have no idea where the hundreds of millions of dollars will come from. Local governments need to account for the full life-cycle costs of their transportation systems on an ongoing basis, which means replacing rail cars, buses, escalators and bus stops without federal money when they wear out.

As e-mail correspondent Christian Waller points out, the commonwealth of Virginia legislatively requires condominium associations to accumulate replacement reserves for all capital improvements. “If our governments followed their own such legislation,” he writes, “we wouldn’t have such a dire long-term fiscal outlook regarding transportation, utility and other infrastructure.” And local governments would be more careful about what they built in the first place.

Arlington officials have done such a brilliant job fostering cost-effective development — the street cars will support higher-density development along Columbia Pike — that the county probably can afford to support this extravagance. But that’s really no excuse. As long as mass transit is underwritten by taxpayers, who may or may not use the system, the county needs to be more attentive to costs.

Hat tip: Ron Utt


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23 responses to “Arlington’s $1 Million Bus Stop”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    Some people can’t see the forest for the trees. Jim Bacon can’t see the trees for the bark.

    Big news! Arlington spent too much on prototype bus stops.

    Not to be mentioned: Richmond has one of the worst public transit systems in the United States.,28804,2070992_2071127_2071094,00.html

    Which is worse – occasionally spending too much in a successful effort or systematic failure?

    Analyze thyself, Richmonder.

  2. Don won’t be happy until I point out Richmond’s failings in *every* blog post — like he does.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      You’re funny. You write article after article about the stupidity of the Charlottesville Bypass. You wear the fingerprints off your fingers typing invective against DC’s Metro system and the MWAA’s management of the new rail lines.

      Yet, there is an eerie silence when it comes to transportation in your home town.

      At first, I assumed that there were no transportation problems in Richmond now that the Pocohontas Parkway problems have been “solved”.

      Then, I read Peter’s article, “Richmond’s Buses to Nowhere”.

      Then, I started paying attention to surveys of mass transit by city. I noticed that Richmond was always at or near the bottom.

      Today, I read about your disdain for Arlington’s new bus stops.

      I just wonder when you’ll turn your considerable analytic and reporting skills to looking at mass transit in Richmond.

  3. Arlington is to be congratulated for being one of, if not THE, best city for cycling and probably all alternative transportation in Virginia. The fiscal issue is, however, crucial and ALL transportation projects (bus stops or not) should produce good “Return on Investment” style studies before spending taxpayer dollars.

    One project that few know about in Tennessee is reaping great environmental, transportation, and fiscal benefits for Chattanooga due to the failure of other communities to bring fiscal brainpower to work when they go “green.”

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      What was the ROI for the buses in Chattanooga?

      1. good question, but NOT a question I asked since my research was in 2010 and they began the eBuses around 1990. What Chatanooga did was recognize quickly that “running the eBuses” wasn’t fiscally viable UNLESS they got them very cheaply and used them intelligently. Which Chat did by restricting them to the downtown, 5-minute headway time, loop. Other cities ran their eBuses for the TV cameras, figured out that they wouldn’t hold up to a commuter route and then, quietly sold them to Chat a few years later for next to nothing. (All explained in the link).

        Charlottesville, where I live, has two eTrucks which it parades (and otherwise never uses) for events because the trucks so slow local traffic that they are horrible public relations for the city. On the flip, Cville zoning inspectors ride eBikes pretty much daily to do their work.

  4. hmmm.. how much per mile did the ICC cost? about $19,000 per linear foot or 280,000 for 15 feet…

    or how about this – how much do 15 parking spots in a commuter lot cost?

    need to be comparing apples to apples here..

  5. […] Arlington has a bus stop that is two times the value of my house. […]

  6. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    “Actual construction and fabrication for this bus stop cost $575,000 while another $440,000 went to construction management and inspection fees.”

    Even for those who are as cynical as I on these matters, these numbers are extremely difficult to believe. If true, someone or group should be fired.

    Perhaps others should go to jail. How else can you spend this kind of money for such a structure and such “related Construction management services and inspection fees,” other than by theft or fraud.? How can gross negligence even qualify here? I can’t see how.

    In addition, note the design of this “bus stop.” It comes out of Vogue magazine – all glossy and slick, but with no comfort, or practical purpose.

    Notice, for example, how the designer couldn’t less about the comfort of those who take refuge in the bus stop to gain protection against the elements. The cold and wet of a frigid windy snowy or rainy day. Note how the front of the bus stop and its roof is canted skyward, as if designed on purpose to let the cold wet and snowy wind inside so as to pelt the poor taxpayers huddled inside. Think about the elderly. Think about old folks soaked to the skin in cold wet clothes. Think about these elderly who’ve also been grossly overcharged for protection they deserve but never gets

    What am I missing here? Have not those who designed, approved, and paid other peoples’ money for this bus stop lost sight of what their job is and who they serve? Arlington taxpayers deserve a full and complete explanation, line item by line item, and then they deserve a complete overhaul of the procurement system and people that produced this remarkable result that is now being foisted on those they are supposed to serve and protect.

  7. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    In the first decade of the 2oth century, the William Howard Taft Bridge was built over Rock Creek Gorge. 1,341 feet long, it soared 133 feet over Rock Creek. The structure was massive; five arches, each 20 feet thick and 15o feet across,plus two concrete anchored arches 82 feet across at each end. The Bridge was so expensive it was called The Million Dollar Bridge. It’s cost that raised such surprise and consternation was $846, 000.

    For pictures and history of The Million Dollar Bridge see:

    Surely Arlington County can better explain why a bus stop there cost $1,000,000 to build? Why the county is paying $23,000,000 to build 23 bus stops? Why it does not have a better use for $23,000,000? Why it is unable to “value engineer” the cost of bus down to a say $30,000 apiece, and spend the more than $22,000,000 in savings on a more worthy cause.?

    Surely, too, the citizens of Arlington have sufficient interest in their community and how their money is spent to ask these simple questions.

  8. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    correction “value engineer” the cost of bus stop down to say $30,000.

  9. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I note that Washington Post article mentions that as much as 80% the cost of this million dollar bus stop is paid for the Federal and State governments. So perhaps Arlington County is simply taking the view that its somebody else money so lets waste it for the privileged of burning up other peoples money.

    The waste on one level of governments feeds the waste of other levels of government, creating a spiral of waste as everyone else involved (like contractors) feeds like pigs at a trough as well.

  10. Each jurisdiction gets their share of allocations that are tied in part to what the people in their jurisdictions paid in taxes to the State and the Feds.

    Each jurisdiction has a choice on what kind of transpo projects they want to spend their allocation on- transit or roads.

    In neither case, do they necessarily have to meet any kind of an ROI as the money is considered to have originally come from them and once the State and Feds get their cut, it’s up the locality to spend it as they please.

    this is a problem and that is many people do believe the money is coming from the Feds and the State instead of out of their own pockets and if they knew it was coming out of their own pockets they might object to million dollar bus stops…

    No where in Virginia that I know of is there a tabulation and accounting of the taxes collected in the name of transportation on a per county/city/town basis.

    You can go to Commonwealth DataPoint and find all kinds of finance data almost down to the pencil for tax and spending – but missing are transpo taxes and spending accounting….

  11. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Thank you, Larry. That’s very helpful information.

    So in fact, despite what Washington Post says Arlington County officials said, it is Arlington money that will pay roughly $21,000,000 for 23 bus stops. And this is only the beginning. Nothing adds to in this Washington Post story except the outrage and complaints registered by those citizens who have used the first million dollar bus stop. Consider the following.

    1/ Construction management and inspection fees on a “$575,000 bus stop” can never in fact amount to $440,000 or any number even remotely close. You can put a false label on anything but that does not make the payment or its label legitimate. In the legitimate world such fees are a small faction of the amount claimed and paid here. Someone is not telling the truth here. The citizens need to know where that $440,000 went to, why, for what, and who pocketed Arlington County’s money? And they need to know why someone called it for construction management and inspection fees, and they continues to do so? And, if the first bus stop cost $575,000 to build, why are the next 22 bus stops going to cost $904,000 apiece.

    2/ Were these bus stops put out to competitive bid? Were they value engineered to reduce cost? Were the bids negotiated? Was there a guaranteed maximum prices. If not why? What are the line item costs of the bid, where these line items numbers negotiated or value engineered. If not why? Where their cost over-runs, and change orders. If so why were they approved, and what was original price. Does the County have a cause of action against any party to the building of this $1,000,000 bus stop? Why in these times of financial hardship did Arlington County award a contract that would lead the county to pay $21,000,000 for 23 bus stops.

    3/ Why did the county accept a design of a bus stop that fails to perform its intended function: that is to protect its users from inclement weather? Does the county now blame this failure on a “public review process?” Is it the public’s fault the bus stop does not perform its job despite it $1,000,000 cost? And, after all of this, why will the county go ahead and spend another $20,000,000 to build another 22 bus stops that obviously will not work?

    4/ Why did it take 18 months to build a bus stop? You can build a large high rise office building with underground garage in 18 months. Was this really Metro’s fault as the county now allegedly claims? If so, why? And why did the county allow it to happen? And why is there a lengthy environment assessment for Arlington County bus stops? Is that really the state of Virginia’s fault as allegedly Arlington County claims. If so, why?

    5/ Also, according to the Washington Post, Arlington transportation officials say this is “and an investment in infrastructure to support the (Columbia) Pike’s renewals.” Why do these transportation officials believe that paying for a grossly overpriced bus stop that does not work is an “investment” in anything? Why is it not a total waste of taxpayer money, and at best a gross dereliction of duty to the citizens they’d charged to serve?

    6. Now, Arlington citizens are being told that their new 4.5 mile street car line is estimated to cost about a quarter of a trillion dollars. Yes, 4.5 miles of track and cars are estimated to cost a quarter of a trillion dollars. Why should citizens trust the people who charged them $1,000,000 for a bus stop that does not work to oversee the building of an alleged quarter trillion dollar street car to carry folks 4.5 miles up a preexisting street? Why not take a bus, and save the quarter of a trillion dollars?

    And of course the quarter trillion does not include the 23 bus stops at nearly a million dollars a pop. And that’s no guarantee. According to the Washington Post, “the county has budgeted $20.8 million for the remaining 22 stops, or about $904,000 for each one.” But “Our goal if at all possible is to do it for less,” says Arlington head of transportation.

    Is it really true that the head of Arlington Country’s Transportation Department is not sure that its possible to build a bus stop for less than $904,000? If this is so, why does not the county replace him with someone who can build a bus stop for a faction of that absurd amount of $904,000?

    1. Reed, excellent analysis. Just one key correction: The Arlington street car line will cost one-quarter billion, not trillion, dollars.

  12. My hunch is that the fault for the sky-high prices on the bus stops lies not with any particular administrator or department within Arlington County, which tends to hire very competent people, but with the insane regulatory requirements engendered by the involvement of the federal government. If I were a reporter or citizen digging into this story, that is the first place I would look.

    Regardless, it appears as though something is very, very wrong with the design and procurement process.

    The City of Norfolk built some very nice shelters, very comparable in size and function, for its new light rail line. It would be interesting to know how much they cost.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Thanks for the sorely needed corrections, Jim. Dyslexia on steroids this am.

      Regarding your other points.

      There is an enclosed urban downtown bus stop that fronts on a major DC designated “Grand Avenue’ two blocks from my house. It works find and it look fine. If it cost more than $10, 000 to buy and install DC overpaid for it.

      Yes, I agree with you that the system is obviously broken. Regulations, bureaucratic processes, and procurement procedures are sky-rocketing costs of public improvements and services. But what happens is that public officials who are involved in the process become corrupted by it. They buy into the process. It becomes part of their reason to be. The reason for their self importance. They get lost in and blinded by and dependent upon the system. Before long they’re blind to the idea that a million bus stop that does not work is an absolute travesty. Nor can they see that its a dereliction of duty on their part if they are in charge of the tragic result.

      But why? they ask. It’s gone through all the approval processes. And they think that is all that counts. The fact it does not work, and that it is grossly overpriced no longer occurs to them. It is simply business as usual. And other peoples money.

      But how the system perverts the players in the system does not change the reality. The reality is the same. It’s still a travesty. And those officials are making it happen. And those on who watch the travesty occur, and often indeed guide the process, need to be shook up, and called out for it.

      In short, there are no good excuse for what is happening here. Those Arlington county officials quoted in the Washington Post are indited by there own words, rationales, and efforts to deflect and shift blame onto others. As citizens, there is good excuse for us not to be outraged about it. Only outrage will get us on the road to correction and good government which is this particular case has gone bad and is plainly out of control.

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        PS – Some speculation as to what might be driving these stupendously outrageous costs by reason of the system the county might operate by.

        Is Metro imposing needless charges? They need the money. Perhaps Metro has devised ways to capture operating funds by building overrides into these bus stops so as divert Federal monies that would otherwise be returned whole to the county. Perhaps its tied into the Federal grants. This is pure speculation on my part. But Metro has the need and perhaps the leverage here. This again is pure speculation.

        Others stings too might be attached to the return of the money. I recall Charles Marohn’s writing in “Strong Towns” how towns could get federal grants for NOT Less than $5,000,000 for new bridges but not for repairs of old ones alone. So when a town needed say $330,000 to repair a bridge, it would dream up (my words) another $5, 000,000 worth of unnecessary new bridges so as get $330,000 to repair a critical bridge. This way politicians’ got the public credit for “bringing home the bacon” to build stuff their constituents did not need (but thought they did).

  13. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    This story has legs and is playing nationally. Local officials are beginning to change their tune. Many half-truths, inexplicable explanations, and unknowns remain. People need to get to the bottom of this, and solutions need to be found, to insure this sort of thing never happens again in Arlington.

  14. tlm4200 Avatar

    New to the blog.

    Why is anyone surprised at any of this. NOVA is rich…Just see the latest reports on the economy there. The federal Government hires all those people at outrageous rates. Tax receipts have to be through the roof, let alone what the federal government funds directly. No wonder Arlington can afford to spend that kind of money on a bus stop.

    Jim is right about one thing in Arlington. They do hire reasonably competent folks. I know. I used to work for the County Manager.

    Didn’t read all the comments, but some comparison may surely be made to that fiasco in Central California. Government does itself no favors by putting forth that crap. It makes the citizenry resentful and ultimately postal.

    Who is this guy Rippert? His comments smack a little of: “…And so’s yo momma”

  15. Back in 2012, Arlington County approved $20.86 million for 22 bus “super-stops” in its Adopted FY2013 Capital Improvement Plan. If you go to the Arlington County website, you’ll find that the documented official plan was to build two prototype ‘Super Stops’, and then build 20 more Super Stops. The total budget for this was $20.86 million.

    Arlington County Adopted Biennial Capital Improvement Plan, Fiscal Years 2013-2022

    At the bottom of page A-51 of that Arlington County Adopted FY2013 Capital Improvement Plan (page 68 of the pdf), I see that Arlington’s plan called for two prototype ‘Super Stop’ units, followed by 20 more Super Stops. On page E12 (page 264 of the pdf), the cost for this is shown to be $20.86 million. That’s 22 bus stops for $20.86 million – an average of $948,182 per bus stop.

    So – despite all of the public relations lies, the plan ALL ALONG was to pay about $948,000 per bus super stop.

    Meanwhile, WMATA and Arlington County were fiddling around for 18 months, spending over a million dollars, and they handed us a very defective bus stop design.

    $1M exposed D.C.-area bus stop leaves straphangers out in the rain
    CBS News, March 28, 2013 8:31 AM$1m-exposed-d.c.-area-bus-stop-leaves-straphangers-out-in-the-rain/

    As this became public knowledge, the public rose up in opposition! (Apparently this was not expected.)

    Arlington County halts planned bus stop construction after outcry over high cost of 1st stop
    Washington Post, March 30, 2013

    The usual government-business public relations operations tried to downplay and lie about the problem, but finally WMATA and Arlington County had to mollify the public by promising to investigate themselves.

    Arlington, WMATA to study bus stop cost
    Washington Post, April 04, 2013

    OK – the promise was made to investigate this, back on April 4, 2013. But now it is May 28, 2013, and we have not heard a PEEP. Almost two months have passed, and everybody seems to have forgotten all about this – as planned, I think.

    So, where is the report? How did Arlington County and WMATA manage to plan twenty-two bus ‘super stops’ at $948,000 each, and bungle the execution of that plan, and then pretend that gee, well the first one just cost a lot extra but the rest will be cheap – when the published and approved plan budgeted $948,000 for each station? And then how did WMATA and Arlington County bury the story in the usual careless forgetfulness of the public and the news media?

    Federal funds were used to fund much of this strange project. And a lot of lies were told – everybody seemed to forget all about the FY2013 CIP budget, as though they never heard of such a thing. This appears to be yet another expensive example of Public Corruption. Where are the federal investigators? Where is the Inspector General, and where is the FBI?

  16. Months later, we find that the ‘investigation’ of Arlington’s million-dollar ‘super-stops’ may leave a few things to be desired. Here’s a good read on what happened. (Funny how the news media never picks up on this stuff.)

    You think maybe Fairfax County might want to know about this? Never mind the taxpayers.

    Peter’s Take: Super Stop Investigation
    ARL Now, July 18, 2013

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Bob –
      I am writing this on Sept. 11 – 4o days after your last post – the comments to this Super stop Investigation are quite remarkable.


      Is there no end to this? Is there an adult in the house anywhere that can bring this ridiculous runaway Million Dollar Bus Stop to ground?

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