Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Silver Line delays: maybe the real lesson is that contracting out construction to the private sector doesn't always work so well

WMATA photo of the station entrance for the Tysons Corner Station of the forthcoming Silver Line extension in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The Washington Post editorialized yesterday, "The Silver Line’s long, hard slog," about delays in opening the Silver Line subway extension, attributing the problems to the project being overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

But that's somewhat facile.  It's more about not having WMATA run the project.

Path dependent decision one: picking the private sector, not WMATA, to build the Silver Line.  The State of Virginia made the decision to not have WMATA, the transportation authority in the DC Metropolitan region responsible for the operating (and original construction of the) Metrorail subway system, handle the design, engineering, and construction of the Silver Line extension.

Instead, it was to be done by a "public private partnership," led by the private sector.
Path dependent decision two: not providing direct funding for the project, but instead using revenues from the Dulles Toll Road, including increasing prices.  The State of Virginia didn't want to come up with funding for the local match, and they figured out that the revenue from the Dulles Toll Road serving Dulles Airport (owned and operated by the MWAA) could be harnessed to provide the bulk of funding for the local match. 

So the State of Virginia shifted ownership of the Dulles Toll Road to the MWAA.  And made MWAA the primary public actor responsible for the construction of the Silver Line, which after construction, would be turned over to WMATA for operation and integration into the Metrorail system.

-- "Governor Kaine Announces Partnership With Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for Dulles Corridor," press release, MWAA, 2006

The real problem was the State of Virginia's choice to side-step WMATA, which had lots of experience managing subway rail system construction.  Whether or not MWAA was the right actor, clearly, going that way to avoid for the most part direct WMATA involvement in the construction of the line, was likely a mistake, not to mention how much it angers Dulles Toll Road users, because tolls have risen considerably to pay for the Silver Line.

What people call "public private partnerships" aren't really partnerships, as much as they are financing deals.

-- "The hidden price of public-private partnerships," Toronto Globe & Mail

Likely it would have been better for WMATA to run this project.  Instead, WMATA was forced to eliminate for the most part their construction division, after Virginia decided to go its own way on the Silver Line.  (Another example of failed "public private construction partnerships" would be the Silver Spring Transit Center...)

Too bad the Post didn't editorialize about that.

Even though they ran articles about it in 2003...

-- "Metro Construction Projects Creak to Halt; Economic, Political Changes Cancel Expansion Plans, Spur Job Cuts, Early Retirements," Lyndsey Layton. Washington Post, July 13, 2003. pg. C.01.

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