You hear a lot of talk about making suburbs into something more like cities, and if reporting like that of the Washington Post last week is any guide, it’s going to be a tricky sell to turn the talk into reality. On March 24, the Post published a story about what it calls a “$1 million bus stop” in Arlington, Virginia. It didn’t cost $1 million, technically, and it isn’t just a bus stop. The Post showed signs of having known as much, but went ahead and made a new transit project sound like a boondoggle anyway and stoked enough outrage to have a major county transit improvement project put on hold.
The stop is what Arlington transportation planners are calling a “superstop.” It is a prototype, the first of two dozen stops meant to handle both bus and, eventually, streetcar traffic down Columbia Pike, a four-lane commercial strip that runs three-and-a-half miles through the county from its outer suburbs to the edge of the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, buses unload at a very busy subway stop that takes people into Washington, D.C. Once the streetcar line is built as planned, the combined transit line is expected to carry about 30,000 passengers on a typical weekday.
The hard costs to build the stop were $574,000. There were other costs, too, about $433,000, as Dennis Leach, Arlington’s transportation director, told me. Those other costs involved design (by HOK), planning, reviews, fees, and so forth. There were also problems of construction delays, about 14 months beyond the four months originally scheduled. Arlington contracted the construction of three superstops to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or Metro, which wound up for its own reasons scaling down its construction operations. (Metro can barely keep a single subway station fully functional these days.) “This project really became an orphan” at Metro, so Arlington County ended that relationship with just the one superstop.
Much of the $433,000 can be filed under research and development costs, one-time charges to create the first superstops that will spread over the creation of the other 23 stops. “Our intent was to do one [stop], evaluate it, and then go forward with modifications,” Leach said.
Ah, but the Post reported that “[t]he county has budgeted $20.8 million for the remaining 23 stops, or about $904,000 for each one.” With this burning fact, the Post’s reporter headed out to the superstop in question and baited commuters who were waiting for buses to offer their thoughts about all this million-dollar business.
One commuter said: “From a citizen, from a voter, whoever put that budget through needs to get their butt canned. It’s an outrage.” Another asked: “Is this made of gold?”
Well, no. It’s made of stainless steel, glass, and concrete. It has real-time electronic displays to let commuters know when the next bus will arrive. Each stop will also involve a lot of work to relocate utilities underground, to make streetscape improvements, and install new street lighting. The costs may surprise commuters. They obviously surprise the Post. But they don’t surprise people who have designed transit systems in other cities.
“The cost breakdown [in the Post] is suspiciously missing a lot of detail,” said Brian McCarter, FASLA, a landscape architect at Zimmer Gunsul Frasca (ZGF) in Portland, which led the recent redesign of the Portland Mall, a late-1970s transit corridor that now serves 57 blocks (see it in the April issue of LAM, which is free over there on the right rail). “There is some amount of infrastructure that goes into the ground at the platform to be ‘rail-ready’ in the future. It involves high-voltage electrical, communications, and safety equipment. The article doesn’t even acknowledge this,” he said. A typical light-rail platform the length of two rail cars can cost $1 million to $1.5 million, he said, “depending on the size of the shelter canopies and other amenities.”
There are complaints about the Arlington shelter as well. Its open form, basically a canopy, doesn’t seem to keep people dry or out of the wind. An Arlington County board member, Libby Garvey (D), told the Post she is irked that “if it’s pouring rain, I’m going to get wet, and if it’s cold, the wind is going to be blowing on me.”
Well, there’s a reason for that, Leach said. “The big issue is the community wanted a very open, airy design, and wanted it to be very transparent.”
But there is more. Jason Hellendrung, ASLA, a landscape architect and principal at Sasaki Associates, in Watertown, Massachusetts, has designed public transit fixtures and shared his views on the shelter issue in particular. Architects and designers don’t always anticipate all of a shelter’s functional needs, but “there are also a lot of technical complications to address,” Hellendrung says. For safety, most transit shelters are rather open so that people don’t become “trapped, mugged, or raped” in them. A shelter has to have clear visibility inside and out. “There are setbacks and height clearances that don’t allow full coverage for the shelter onto the vehicle,” Hellendrung says. “Also, there are considerations for view angles from security cameras that limit vertical obstructions.”
Ron Stewart, an architect and colleague of McCarter’s at ZGF, added: “It is not possible to design windscreens that protect during all seasons and from all wind directions. Waiting times at frequently used stops are short, so exposure time is minimized while not creating a security issue.”
So be sure to dress for the weather and bring an umbrella on those rainy days.
A couple of other points: Municipal planners don’t have much money for maintenance, so taxpayers, voters, whoever, ought to be glad whenever they use high-grade materials in building infrastructure; the good stuff costs less in the long run. And finally, Arlington County is known the world over for its clever mass-transit planning and for having placed a lot of new development around transit since the 1980s. The money the county spends today to improve transit and take cars off the roads is going to pay itself off and then some. Developers are already swarming around Columbia Pike with new six- to eight-story commercial and residential buildings where there has for decades been one long, thin retail strip.
“The higher investment in the transit infrastructure is absolutely justified by the increased property values, tax base, higher ridership, less vehicle miles traveled, environmental benefits, and increased social capital of good, planned communities,” McCarter said. “An article like this one completely ignores what the bigger effort is about and focuses on the shocking headline.” That $1 million bus stop: a line the Post works almost to the last sentence, even though it might even know better, or should, given how much coverage the paper devotes to the region’s incessant gridlock and its crumbling highways.