Here are a couple of non-correction corrections. The first is fact, the second is speculation/reason/guesswork.
Fact is that the Town referred to its 8-acre Beulah Road property as a park for decades before it decided to use it for mulching (Post #526). The documentary evidence for that is overwhelming (see first section below).
Speculation/reason/guesswork is that the town roughly doubled the estimated cost of the Patrick Henry Parking Garage, out of nowhere (Post #531), as a ploy to get somebody else to pay the full cost of the garage. Funding agencies will want to see the Town pay half the cost. But the Town wants somebody else to pay for all of it. So, just claim that it costs twice as much as it actually does. That’s a fraud, but so is the claim that this garage will serve large numbers of Vienna Metro commuters, which is how the Town justifies asking for regional traffic congestion relief funds for this.
My wife tells me that some people object to my use of the word “fraud” in a recent posting (Post #515, but Post #446 does a better job of explaining the issue). Fair enough. If everybody is happy about what I write, I’m doing something wrong.
In this post, I’m going to explain how I got to that point. Briefly, a year and a half ago, I was just sincerely trying to make sense of puzzling behavior by the Town w/r/t the Mill Street garage. But as the Town’s claims got nuttier, I amped up the rhetoric correspondingly.
I’m going to end this post with a suggestion that would guarantee that this entire taxpayer-financed transaction is above-board, with no hint of fraud. This suggestion would be cheap and easy to do. It embodies the essence of good government. And I am quite sure the Town will never, ever do it.
My suggestion: Monitor the outcome. That is, measure and report on Metro commuters’ actual use of these garages, once they are built. I’m not even saying that the Town should give the money back if it turns out that this was a fraud mistake. I’m just saying that the funding agencies should demand to know how effective their spending was, at achieving the stated goal of creating a commuter garage. And if it turns out that this was a complete waste of money from their perspective, then at least they will learn something. With luck, they will know better the next time somebody tries to pull the same scam make the same implausible argument.
Caution: high horse ahead. We can tolerate the occasional wasteful spending decision by a local government entity (NVTA or NVTC). But we shouldn’t tolerate willful ignorance about the level of waste. Instead, we should require that these government entities acknowledge and learn from their mistakes. Just like any real business. And that feedback loop needs to be built into the system. And so, anyone receiving tax funding to build a “Metro commuter” garage ought to be required to provide an accurate measurement of the extent to which Metro commuters actually use it. That’s all I’m saying. I hope that makes sense.
Some history on this issue
I’ve been trying to make sense of the Town’s actions in this area for more than a year and a half. That’s when I first found out just exactly how the Town had convinced the NVTA to fund half of the (now defunct) Mill Street garage (see this post dating to June 2018).
I was such a do-bee *, **, *** on this that I actually researched and developed a suggestion for how that garage might best serve Vienna commuters (as the basis for a slug line). That’s how hard I was trying to make sense of this, at that time.
* Sadly, I find myself sincerely and without irony quoting Romper Room. Youngsters in the readership here (meaning, anyone under about 60 or so) will have no idea what I’m talking about. Think of it as reactionary propaganda — religious, patriotic, and social — aimed at the most vulnerable and gullible segment of the population, broadcast over the public airwaves. It was as if Sesame Street had been conceived by the John Birch Society. Clearly, it succeeded at its insidious task, as I will probably remember the phrase “Do be a do-bee, and don’t be a don’t-bee” long after I’ve forgotten the names of my children.
** This “do-bee/don’t-be” dichotomy is a widely-used method for embedding conventional social norms in literature aimed at young children. For example, it was later adopted by children’s author Richard Scarry in his classic religious propaganda Busy Town series. There, the (presumed) brothers Pig Will and Pig Won’t take the place of the gender-neutral Do Bee and Don’t Be, and are repeatedly used to demonstrate behaviors deemed socially acceptable and unacceptable, respectively. By portraying Good and Evil in a concrete fashion, such authors directly impress their notions of right and wrong onto their target audience. The sincerity of these characters (as propaganda tools aimed at the vulnerable pre-school popoulation) should be contrasted to the frankly tongue-in-cheek Angel/Devil imagery aimed at older, more rational children, such as the shoulder angel/shoulder devil debate in the animated classic “The Emperor’s New Groove“.
*** Upon close examination, other characters in Scarry’s “Busy Town” series were even more disturbing. For example, the town butcher was portrayed as a pig, and yet had clearly identifiable hams hanging in his shop window. I still wonder what message the author had in mind with that.
For the Mill Street garage, the Town only pretended that half the spaces would be for commuter use, and only asked for half the money to build the garage.
But in later iterations, for the proposed Patrick Henry garage, the Town’s story grew more absurd. When the Town applied to the NVTA for money, it proposed that 100% of the spaces be used by commuters, prompting me to write my “absurdum” post (Post #446). My point being that if this actually worked out as the Town suggested — if all the spaces were in fact used by commuters — then the garage would do the Town no good. There’d be no spaces left for its actual use, which is to provide shopper/diner parking for local merchants. But by saying that 100% of spaces would be used by commuters, it could then ask for 100% of the cost of the garage to be covered.
And in this most recent round (applying to NVTC for money), the Town is proposing that fewer spaces be used by commuters, but it’s still asking for 100% of the cost of the garage to be covered.
My guess is, the request that 100% of costs be covered is driven by our capital budget, where the Town is planning to borrow and spend vastly more in this year’s cycle than it has ever done in the past. So much so that it had to assume the Patrick Henry garage would be “free” in order to get the numbers to work out (e.g., Post #488, Post #504).
Now, with that as perspective, surely you can put that all together the same way I have. So far, the Town has done the following:
Claimed that half of one garage, on Mill Street, would be used by Metro commuters, and asked for 50% of the cost of that garage to be covered.
When the Mill Street garage fell through, blithely moved the money for that, to a different proposed garage on Church street, where the money would cover 59% of the garage.
Claimed that 100%, of a different, larger garage (Patrick Henry) would be used by Metro commuters, and asked for 100% of that garage to be covered.
Claimed that some smaller share (?) of spaces (certainly, a smaller count of spaces) would be used by commuters, in that same garage, and still asked for 100% of the cost of the garage to be covered.
This is in a Town that, prior to this, has done very close to nothing for Metro commuters. (Well, they built bus shelters, starting back in 1977. But not a lot, lately, for sure.) And a Town where, if people were of a mind to park and catch a bus to Metro, there are copious opportunities for street parking right now (detailed in Post #447)****.
**** “… I count at least the following residential areas, with street-side parking, within walking distance of a bus stop for the 463 Fairfax Connector bus: Kingsley-Meyers; Tapawingo; Roland-Mendon-Ceret; Moorefield-Princeton-Princess; Wade Hampton-Millwood-Glen; Pleasant; Berry; East; and virtually all the residential streets beyond East that connect to Maple. That isn’t even counting the other bus routes that have some Metro connection.”
When I put that all together — the totally implausible story about commuting, the existing market test that shows people do not park/bus to Metro despite ample current opportunity, the repetition of the story for two different garages, and the morphing of the story over time — I come to the firm conclusion that the Town’s story is just that — a story. It’s an untruth told for the purpose of achieving financial gain. And that’s the definition of a fraud.
A simple fix: Just come clean about the results
The introduction says pretty much all that needs to be said about this. Given that nothing will dissuade the Town from doing this, and given that the Town has already gotten millions of dollars (for the Mill Street) garage with this story, it’s clear that this is the Town’s story and they are sticking with it.
My sole suggestion, then, is that the agencies providing the funding actually measure the effectiveness of their spending. Require that the Town accurately count the number of parking spaces actually used by park-and-bus-to-Metro commuters. This is the only way to close the loop, and force the funding agencies to admit what they have done — mis-spent funds that were intended for congestion relief, to give Vienna shopper/diner parking for local merchants.
Fill in your favorite aphorism here:
Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Better late than never.
Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes.
My point is that, like anyone else, governments need to learn from their mistakes. And in the case of government, that feedback needs to be built into the system.
If you really don’t think the Town is committing fraud here, then there should be no objection to building in that feedback. If we are proud of getting taxpayer funding in this fashion, we should be proud to measure the results and to make that measurement publicly known.
Wait, you didn’t know there was going to be a commuter garage in Vienna? That’s no surprise, because there isn’t going to be one.
I mean, why on earth would anyone drive through this …
… in order to get to the middle of Vienna, park in the new commuter parking garage, then take the (once-per-half-hour) bus back down Maple Avenue, in order to get back to the Vienna Metro?
Nobody’s going to do that. But our Town government is happy to lie about that, if that fraud means somebody else will pay for the proposed shopper/diner parking garage at the Patrick Henry Library.
On top of committing fraud against the taxpayer by lying about commuter use of this garage, this item has several other features worth noting. All of which I’ve touched on before. It’s more-or-less a microcosm of … well, pretty much how I view Town government.
Keep Town Council/Public in the dark. There’s no copy of the staff presentation in the Town Council meeting materials. This is now standard operating procedure by the Department of Planning and Zoning, and serves to keep both Town Council and (particularly) the public in the dark as long as possible. Consistent with SOP, if anyone on own Council dares to slap their wrist over this (yet again), DPZ will offer to send them a copy after-the fact. And the public? Anything sent out with the meeting packet itself has to be public information, by law. But if they don’t send it out? Well, you peasants can FOIA it if you want to have a copy of it. You can see my writeup of this tactic, as the new norm, in the middle of Post #480, which discusses FOIA issues in general.
Ask for a rubber-stamp approval. Heck, they didn’t even bother to provide a copy of the two items that the Town is backing with this resolution. I.e., the story here seems to be “just say yes, you don’t need to bother your little heads about the details of what you’re endorsing”. If that’s not the definition of rubber-stamping something, I don’t know what is. (And note that the story about the garage continues to change, see below).
We’re already overspent the capital budget. The Town is already so over-spent on its capital budget that it needs this free shopper-diner garage, or it’ll have to scramble to find the money. So Town Council has no choice but to endorse the fraud. (See, e.g., Post #504, Post #488,Post #485.)
The story keeps changing. The number of “commuter” parking places in this proposal is less than the number in the prior funding proposal the Town Council approved for the NVTA. (Versus this new funding proposal, to the NVTC — see last item). Arguably, that’s because the last proposal, for money from a different local government agency, was totally absurd. So our story about these fictional commuter parking places continues to morph, even as we apply to additional entities to pay for them. (See, e.g., Post #447, Post #446).
The only option on the table is just plain ugly, but nobody will object. The only viable parking garage plans result in a new library that squats under a parking garage. See illustration, and see, e.g., Post #367, Post #369, Post #371, Post #372.
Ready-fire-aim. The Town will, eventually, get some consultant in to tell it how many parking places it actually needs. But only after it has already funded both a Church Street “commuter” garage and this Patrick Henry “commuter” garage. Call me cynical, but I bet the consultant ends up telling the Town that it somehow, though sheer guesswork, funded exactly the right number of spaces, whatever that number turns out to be. (See, e.g., this post or Post #481 for discussion of other ready-fire-aim studies, or Post #510 for the parking study, or this post from a year ago about the economic development plan that will justify MAC zoning after-the-fact. The point is, ready-fire-aim is the Town’s normal mode of operation in this arena.)
Ludicrous cost. The current lie (to NVTC, as opposed to the previous lie, to NTVA) is now stated as a request for $5.5M to buy 84 “commuter” parking places, or $65,000 per putative commuter parking place. That’s exceptionally expensive, and doesn’t even factor in a reasonable utilization rate (i.e., doesn’t even account for the fact that commuters aren’t going to park there). See e.g. Post #447 for how the “commuter” garage cost-benefit analysis ought to be done.
We have two local government agencies handing out cash? Where do I stand in line? Yes, the first application was to the NVTA. That’s the organization we suckered into paying for half the Mill Street Garage 59% of the Church Street Garage, or whatever-the-heck portion of whatever-the-heck actually gets built, if anything. (See Post #491 for explanation.) I mean, it’s the taxpayers’ money, so it’s not like anybody needs to care about it, or anything. So, whatever. Noted above, we’ve already put in an application to NVTA, promising that all the parking places in this new garage will be for commuters (Post #446). But this new application, for funding the same garage, is toNVTC, and I don’t think we’re promising every space is a commuter space. (But how can I tell, since there’s no copy of the actual proposal posted.) In any case, we haven’t scammed them yet. In short: Two different taxpayer-financed tax spigots, two different applications. The names are so alike that staff stumbled over the acronyms at the last Town Council session on this.
Except for that last point, I’ve documented all of this before, so I don’t see the need to write this up again. Read the prior posts if you want the details.
If you read this website, you know that I’m certain that the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) has absolutely no business paying for shopper/diner parking in Vienna. Their job is to fund projects that reduce traffic congestion, not to pay for merchants’ parking. To put it as plainly as possible, I think we’re getting their money under circumstances that are just shy of outright fraud. See (e.g.) Post #447,Post #446. And yet, NVTA was willing to fund half of the now-defunct Mill Street garage project.
But as part of the planning for the 2020 bond issue, Vienna assumes that NVTA will pay for 59% of a proposed Church Street garage, and 100% of a proposed Patrick Henry garage.
In fact, at this last Town Council meeting, the Director of Finance said unambiguously that Vienna had won a grant from NVTA to finance the Church Street garage.
To which I had to say, uh, what? When did that happen? Near as I can tell, there isn’t even a plan yet, for that Church Street building, let alone an agreement-in-principle for the Town to buy into it. How the heck did we get them to fund that when the building is still in the vague-concept stage.
And then, uh, what, again, for the 59% cost share (calculated). That’s an odd number, where did that come from?
And then I put it all together. And when I put it all together, it just highlighted how sloppy NVTA is with its awards. Which I think is consistent with how we got the money in the first place.
NVTA was willing to pay for half of the now-defunct Mill Street garage, a sum of $2.3M. That was in return for reserving half the parking places for (imaginary) public-transit commuters. And now, apparently, they’re just going to let the Town of Vienna apply that $2.3M to the proposed Church Street garage.
Let me emphasize: Different building, different fraction of cost covered, different number of parking places. Different location, completely different access to the street, looks like far more difficult entry and exit, no longer adjacent to the W&OD (yeah, we even argued that people would drive to Mill Street, park there, and then bike to work), different distance to bus stops, different distance to Metro.
But the same $2.3M award. Which makes absolutely no sense. But having NVTA pay for shopper/diner parking in Vienna makes no sense in the first place.
On this page, I argue that maybe the best commuter use of the Mill Street garage is to make it the base for the first successful I-66 slug line from Vienna. And that the Town should work to make that happen. The question I address here is, could that work? Continue reading Slug line