Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Half a million for a D.C. streetcar study? Sounds about right

March 7, 2012 - 09:21 AM
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No one said good transit was free. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Metro's critics have continued to beat their drums loudly regarding certain failings of the transit agency — some painfully real, some imagined. One bruising example I see still cited is WMATA's $200,000 report articulating its benefits to the D.C. metro region. I've defended this expense in the past (in theory, assuming a reasonable breakdown of funds from WMATA's planning chief Nat Bottigheimer). The numbers sound high but not wrong when talking professional statistical analysis. When I visited Arlington County's Commuter Services Bureau last month, I mentioned the small WMATA controversy over its $200,000 report to a senior official, someone situated in local planning for upwards of a decade, and she laughed.

"Oh, that's cheap!" Lois DeMeester, executive director of Arlington Transportation Partners, declared. Quality statistical analyses aren't easy to come by ... and they cost.

I've been reviewing the D.C. Office of Planning's recent expenditures on urban planning reports, and I want to include these costs here for comparison and context. Here's a taste of what director Harriet Tregoning's crew is spending as they ponder the District's future:

• Sustainability plan ($500,000)

• Mt. Vernon Square traffic modeling ($200,000)

• Capital improvement plan/facilities planning ($200,000)

• Economic development implementation projects/Eds & Meds study ($200,000)

• Zoning regulations re-write, publications, outreach, economic analysis ($175,000)

• Office space study with GSA and DGS ($175,000)

• Historic Preservation incentive program analysis ($165,000)

• Union Station study ($100,000)

Take a long, good look at those figures there. Dizzy from the dollar signs yet? Seven of the eight budget items above cost more than $150,000.

Local transportation studies and analyses cost in the tens of thousands and yes, frequently enough hundreds of thousands of dollars. I fully understand people's gut reactions to the numbers. To pause and question whether officials are efficiently spending taxpayers' money is more than fair and even necessary. But what I would emphasize is that WMATA's spending on its report is not atypical — various local government agencies spend their funds on analyses such as that at similar expense (even though as a whole, WMATA should probably be spending money a little more wisely). Consider the Barney Circle archaeology study, which ran for $250,000. The Department of Public Works recently conducted a Solid Waste Generation and Composition Study, now in draft form, with a budget of $147,132.

Remember the D.C. Streetcar Land Use Study that got everyone so excited? The one Mayor Vince Gray cited in his State of the District speech earlier this year and that envisions $5 to $7 billion in investment dollars coming into the city thanks to the new transit network? Its phase 1 price tag was $501,000. Its phase 2 follow-up that's planned: $310,000.

These are the numbers, people. For better or worse.

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