Post #1139: Plain-vanilla sidewalks at $450 per foot? Only in the Town of Vienna

The whole Robinson Trust sidewalk thing just keeps getting weirder.  And the story keep changing.  That said, the Town now has a plan that, on paper at least, will spend that money on sidewalks.  So that’s coming ahead.

You can download the current list of proposed projects here, from the Town of Vienna Granicus web page.  Town Council will discuss this at a work session on Monday.


First, a little bookkeeping is in order.  The Town already gave the go-ahead for two sets of sidewalks under the Robinson trust.

This list appears to include the three sidewalks that the Town authorized more than a year ago, including Plum Street (see Post #1056).  I only checked Plum in detail, but the names of the other streets are on this new list.  I assume that all the projects authorized in February 2020 are on this new list.

This list contains just one of the five projects that the Town authorized spending for, two weeks ago, just prior to the last election.  And it now shows a vastly different estimate for the one project that remains.  You can see a profile of those five projects in Post #1133.

The Cabin Road sidewalk spending was authorized at the 4/26/2021 Town Council meeting.  (“Cabin Road SE – Branch Road to Glyndon Street ($120,394.65)”).  But it is now listed in this most recent document with an estimated cost of $374,953.20, or more than three times the bid on the actual contract to construct it.

On the other hand, the Pleasant Street project that was literally part of the same contract as Cabin Road is no longer mentioned.  So, … apparently the Town voted to fund that, two weeks ago, but now there’s no longer a new sidewalk planned for that location.

Finally, the three “fill-in” sidewalk projects that the Town authorized at the 4/26/2021 Town Council meeting are no longer on the list.  So, … again, apparently, those were passed less than two weeks ago, but have been nixed.

Believe it or not, I think I can explain why only one of the five projects that the Town passed just two weeks ago — just prior to the election, recall — remain on the list.  And why the other four were dropped.  See below on details.

The good news and the bad news and all the weird stuff.

The good news is that the Town finally has the appearance of an actual plan to use up that Robinson trust money to build sidewalks.

The bad news is that, taken at face value, they are showing that they’ve used up that money by gold-plating the sidewalks.  That is, producing them at extraordinary cost.  This is something that I mentioned in passing at the end of Post #1120, but did not seriously think was actually going to happen.

Base on what was said in the document cited above, the Robinson trust will pay for no major pieces of infrastructure.  Most of these streets are places where curb and gutter already exists.  And yet, the Town projects an average cost just over $450 per foot. 

By contrast, per a reasonably recent set of estimates via VDOT (.pdf), typical costs in this area are $30/foot for five-foot ribbon sidewalk, and $40/foot for curb and gutter to accompany that.  The two large projects that the Town had already put out to bid (voted on at the 4/26/2021 Town Council meeting) worked out to be about $150/foot for Cabin Road (assuming sidewalk on one side only) or maybe $75/foot (if both sides).  The bid was about $250 a foot for Pleasant Street (which is quite hilly and probably required a lot of work to maintain the drainage).

Anyway, at more than $450/foot for plain-vanilla sidewalks, they have by-God demonstrated how they plan to use up every penny of the available money.  And so, you have to wonder whether they simply back-solved for a cost per foot that would convincingly show that.

A final bit of bad news is that Circle Drive is back on the list.  And so, when I said I didn’t think the Town would be crazy enough to put a sidewalk there, I clearly spoke too soon (set Post #1096 for pictures).

But the weird news is how the story keeps changing.  And how the Town keeps rewriting history.  Either that, or we really have always been at war with Eastasia.

Originally, the executor of the estate would pay only for sidewalk, not for anything else needed to build the sidewalk.  In particular, not for curb or gutter.  I documented that in numerous posts here, going back at least a year.  Every public-facing statement by Town officials said the same thing.

It was easy to see that that was a ludicrous restriction, just by doing a little arithmetic. Anyone who could do a little math could show that, with that restriction, the Town would not even be able to spend the interest on the bequest money, let alone the principal.  It basically barred the use of any material fraction of that bequest actually to build sidewalks.  That arithmetic was laid out in Post #1120.

But that ludicrous restriction was why the Town focused all its efforts on streets that already had curb and gutter.  Those were the only ones the executor of the estate would pay for.  It made no difference that this did not generate  list of streets with the greatest need for sidewalks.  You can literally go back to prior Town Council discussions and see this entire effort described in terms of finding streets that already had curb and gutter.

And it’s why former Town Council candidate Patariu said “sue them”.  Take the estate to court, and get a judge to clarify that the intent of the will was that the money be spent for the construction of sidewalks, broadly construed, not for just that five-foot ribbon of concrete that you walk on.

It was clear that something had changed, with the now-to-be-forgotten list of five projects approved by Town Council on 4/26/2021.  That was the genesis of my “flip-flop” writeup (Post #1133).  The short-lived list of five projects included large stretches of road that didn’t have curb and gutter.  Hence, it was clear that the trustee for the Robinson estate had changed her mind about … something.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Town Council candidate Potter talked about the Town’s plan for 3.3 miles of sidewalk.  The Town’s writeup also says 3.3 miles, on this web page.  But if you look at the documents posted with that writeup, for this Monday’s Town Council work session, the document actually lists 4.4 miles (23,200 feet) of proposed sidewalks.

But by far the weirdest thing is the rewriting of history.  All prior-public facing statements by Town officials said “sidewalk only”, nothing else.  Now the Town says (per the page cited just above):

The criteria:

• The potential project cannot already be funded by other funding sources.

• The potential project must not have sidewalk on either side.

•  The funds can only be spent on sidewalks, not other substantial infrastructure; this led us to begin with sidewalks that already have curb and gutter.

So now it’s just a ban on “other substantial infrastructure”.  This is the rewriting of (or, at least, glossing over of) the past.

This change is what allows (e.g.) the Cabin Road project to be on the list, because part of that road requires new curb and gutter.

Finally, this explains why four of the five projects that Town Council passed just two weeks ago have now been dropped.  As I pointed out in my writeup, four of the five already had sidewalk on one side of the street.  With this new restriction of no existing sidewalk on either side of the street, that dropped.

The Town also made it a point to proclaim that they have a plan that will use up all the money.  But I’m pretty sure that’s a fig leaf.  Either that, or the Town is planning to spend vastly more per foot of sidewalk than they could plausibly justify.  Best guess, the $450 per foot isn’t what they are going to pay.  It’s what they have to say they are going to pay, to make the statement that they’ve used up all the money.

Best guess, there will still be plenty of money left over in that trust fund when all the dust has settled.

That said, for the first time, this actually look like a plan.  Maybe it always was, all along, but nobody could enough of it to see that it was a plant.  And it’s still focused on streets with curb-and-gutter, which is an artifact of the prior restriction on the use of the funds which no longer apparently holds.  That’s less than optimal, as if you were to start from scratch, you’d focus on areas of greatest need, not areas where concrete had been places half a century ago.

So it’s still a classic Town of Vienna decision that wandered around, and just ended up stopping somewhere.  But it just plain beats the heck out of spending a few cents on the dollar of the available funds.

This will all be discussed at a Town Council work session on Monday 5/10/2021.  These days, for whatever reason, the only way to see a work session live is to register for it via Zoom, as described on this Town of Vienna web page.  You may also email your comments, via the link on that page just cited.  In theory, a video recording of the (entire?) meeting will be made available afterwards on the media section of the meeting materials link above.


Post #1056: Town of Vienna, am I having a senior moment, or where’s the sidewalk?

Against my better judgement,  I’m going to start posting occasionally about the Town of Vienna again.  That was, in fact, the original purpose of this website.

I decided to start on an upbeat note.  And so, on one of the nicer days last week, I took a stroll to document some of the  progress the Town had made in putting in new sidewalks.  Using the millions of dollars it had been granted for that purpose by the estate of a former Council member and by reference, a revered former Mayor.

Because, seriously, one posting that combines good weather, free money, a bit of exercise, and civic progress in the form of new sidewalks?  Toss in a kitten on a  roomba and surely this had to be an upbeat post. Continue reading Post #1056: Town of Vienna, am I having a senior moment, or where’s the sidewalk?

Post #697: Town elections, see Post #508

See Post #508, from January 9, 2020 and earlier, on splitting the vote and political suicide.  My numbers were a little off.  But not much.

Votes Percent
Colbert 1545 43%
Majdi 1172 33%
Springsteen 869 24%
Total 3586 100%

Post #537: A thank you to DPW

I live on one of the many “save the swales” streets in Vienna.   It has sloped grass-filled ditches (swales) instead of sidewalks.  I believe this was a fairly common cost-saving move back in the 1950s, which is why you find this layout in some of the older neighborhoods in Vienna.

This is not only picturesque as all get-out (compared to concrete sidewalks), but is also modestly more environmentally friendly than standard curb and gutters.  The swales and culverts slow down the rainwater runoff.

This also makes it a pain to walk anywhere.  Basically, you have to walk in the road, particularly on the spots where there is literally no ground or no level ground to walk on.  And if that’s not bad enough, one portion of the pavement has been in terrible shape for years.

The oddball thing about it was that, as road surfaces go, it wasn’t in bad shape to drive over.  There were no deep potholes, just a whole bunch of small shallow holes.  Just enough to twist an ankle on.

But as a sidewalk, it really stank.  And if weren’t for the fact that we have to use the road surface as our sidewalk, the condition of the pavement would hardly be worth mentioning.  But, as it stands, I’ve taken a couple of falls in the past few months by stepping into those potholes while walking at night.

Which brings me to the point of this post.   A few days ago the Town of Vienna Department of Public Works filled and smoothed over the key section of broken asphalt.  I finally walked past that this morning on my way to Madison High School.  This little bit of pothole filling is a vast improvement for pedestrians trying to get from my neighborhood to Maple Avenue.

I certainly complained about it enough when it was in poor shape.  I figured it was only fair to say “thanks” now that it has been fixed.


Post #521: The cost of sidewalks

Source:  Google maps.

The point of this post is pretty simple:  The cost of installing new concrete sidewalks various enormously.   And the cost of the sidewalk itself — i.e., the 5′-wide ribbon of concrete — is the least of it.  The bulk of the cost is in everything else that has to be done — curb, gutter, curb cuts, ramps, and, most importantly, drainage including storm sewers.

To make this point, I identified four sidewalk projects in the Town of Vienna, and estimated cost per linear foot.  (Detail given below.  This is a “sample of convenience”, being the first four projects I ran across.)  The costs were $100, $150, $445, and $666 per linear foot of sidewalk.  Presumably, if I’d looked at a larger sample of projects, I would have seen even more variation.

In the Town of Vienna, a) there’s really no meaningful “typical” cost for putting in sidewalks and b) in any given situation, the cost might be a lot more than you’d think.

The high costs of sidewalks — and the fact that literally “the sidewalk” is typically the smallest part of the cost — has some important implications for a couple of items that I’ve mentioned recently.

Robinson bequest for sidewalks.  At the last Transportation Safety Commission (TSC) meeting, I found out that the Robinson estate bequest for sidewalks in the Town of Vienna was being interpreted as literally that:  payment for the concrete sidewalk, period (Post #518).  Depending on the project, then, the Town would have to pay for everything else to make that sidewalk possible.  That’s certainly going to tilt the use of those funds toward simple projects where (e.g.) there is already curb and gutter in place, with no need for extensive modifications for site drainage.

Sidewalks versus road closure for the neighborhoods behind Sunrise/444 Maple West.  At the last Town Council meeting, citizens offered some things the Town could do to address pedestrian safety and traffic in the neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed Sunrise facility (Post #517).  Among those was the idea of putting in sidewalks on (among other) Glen Avenue.  But Councilman Potter suggested that simply closing Wade Hampton at Glen would be a less costly solution.  And based on these per-foot costs, that seems like a plausible statement.  Based on those four costs per foot, 1400′ of sidewalk for Glen Avenue (pictured above) might cost anywhere from $140,000 to more than $900,000. 

Continue reading Post #521: The cost of sidewalks

Post #459: Park once, shop many and mixed-use trip reduction.

Google Earth view of the Giant Food shopping center parking lot.  Maple Avenue is at the top of the image.

When I was first introduced to MAC zoning, I assumed that, somewhere, somebody had done some hard analysis of how MAC was supposed to work.  Much later, I came to realize that often was not true.  Much of the analysis never went much beyond using current urban-planning phrases, combined with the hope that somehow those things would happen here.  There really wasn’t any analysis of how, exactly, that would work on Maple Avenue.

I could list a few, but if you read this blog, you can fill those in on your own by now.  If you want to see one, look at Post #302, on “destination shopping”.  The last graphic in the post is a stark contrast between actually creating a true destination shopping district (in this case, the Mosaic District), and just saying those words about Maple Avenue.

In this post, I’m going to drill down into two related concepts:  “Park once, shop many” and “mixed use trip reduction”.  These are routinely touted as advantages of mixed-use development.  My point is that if you actually look at the details, on Maple Avenue, you quickly realize that there’s not much there, there.  Quantitatively, the impact of these factors, on Maple, is apt to be quite small. Continue reading Post #459: Park once, shop many and mixed-use trip reduction.

Post #424: Wrap-up on posts #420-#423


This will be my final post, for now, on the Chick-fil-A-car-wash.

Recap:  The big surprise with the Chick-fil-A-car-wash is that the large transformers for the underground utilities sit in front of the building, adjacent to the exit for the drive-through, nine feet from the curb, directly next to the sidewalk.

At this point, I’m pretty sure that this is an oversight.  In other words, it’s not that key Town officials and staff were aware of and actively approved this.  It’s far more likely that it just slipped through the cracks, and got lost amid all the other details that had to be checked as part of the zoning and permitting processed.  If they’d noticed it, they’d have had them put the transformers in an underground vault.  Nobody intended to have this spoil the “MAC streetscape” at this location.

Some may care about the aesthetics of it, but I don’t.  I look at this for what it is.  It’s a grotesquely oversized fast-food joint on an urban arterial highway.  It’s across the street from a gas station and a 7-11, which, in case you’ve never noticed, has a dumpster right next next to the sidewalk.  In that setting, a couple of electrical boxes out front is not hugely out-of-place.  (Shoot, in that setting, electrical boxes practically count as decoration).  I realize the Town has higher aspirations, but it’s not as if these unexpected electrical boxes/transformers are some huge eyesore relative to what’s across the street.

In a nutshell, in terms of aesthetics, I’d say that this Chick-fil-A-car-wash achieves something I would have thought impossible:  It makes McDonald’s look great.  Side-by-side, next to the Chick-fil-A-car-wash, McDonald’s comes across as petite, unobtrusive and downright stylish.

Instead, I’m just concerned about the bike/pedestrian safety issue that the Town’s oversight has created.  As I believe I have shown in the just-prior post, this is now the worst driveway in town for pedestrian visibility, beating out the driveway next to the Vienna Mattress Firm (aka the former Sleepy’s).



The new driveway at the Chick-fil-A is a worse than the Vienna Mattress Firm/Sleepy’s exit for several reasons.

  1. The sight lines between driver and obscured sidewalk are shorter at the Chick-fil-A than they are at the intersection above (Post #423).  A car driver who stops just short of the sidewalk will have less than one second to see and stop for an oncoming sidewalk bicyclist.
  2. At the Mattress Firm (Sleepy’s) intersection above, drivers are actually looking at the obscured part of the sidewalk when they look at oncoming cars on Maple.  .  At the Chick-fil-A, by contrast, drivers will be looking away from the obscured part of the sidewalk when they look at oncoming cars on Maple.
  3. The Chick-fil-A exit will predictably be busy.  At times (such as when traffic backs up past the driveway), we should expect there to be multiple cars waiting to exit.
  4. Drivers will  predictably be distracted as they exit the fast-food drive-through, e.g., putting their change away, distributing food to their kids, eating, and so on.
  5. Drivers will be predictably unfamiliar with this unique situation.    This fast-food restaurant is likely to attract customers from a wide catchment area.  And this drive-through exit, with it’s obscured sight lines, is unlike more or less anything else in NoVA.  No reasonable person would expect a brand-new building to have such an unsafely obscured sidewalk at the fast-food exit.
  6. The new HAWK light makes this a route that can be (and is) used by Madison High School students.  (Note that Chick-fil-A serves breakfast, so it will be open as they walk to and from school.)

Since the Town played a part in creating this new (potential) hazard, my feeling is that, if the Town’s experts see this as the hazard that I believe it is, the Town should do what it can, before the Chick-fil-A opens, to mitigate it.

First, I don’t think it’s feasible to get those transformers moved.  Legally, I’m pretty sure the Town can’t require it.  And I’m also sure it would be hugely expensive to do that, at this point.  I think they are there to stay.

Second, the Town could put in signs and a convex mirror to make drivers and pedestrians/bikers aware of the hazard.  Seems like that’s a fairly minimal ask.  But, if  done properly, would make that intersection even less appealing.  Why?  Ideally, the convex mirror showing the view of the sidewalk would be in the driver’s field of vision as they look at oncoming traffic, i.e., it would have to be placed at the curb, to the right of the driveway (as viewed when facing the building). So you’d be adding a large stand-alone mirror, on a pole, in front of the building.

Third, given that this the 21st century, the Town could use a more active technology, such as putting in a pedestrian sensor and warning light.  The light would come on when pedestrians or bicyclists were approaching from the blind side of that driveway.  Obviously that’s a more expensive and extensive undertaking.

Finally, the Town could go back and correct the original sin here.  My understanding is that, originally, Chick-fil-A wanted the drive-through lane to exit across the front of the building, back to the access road that runs in front of McDonald’s.  Basically, to let drive-through customers leave that property the way every other customer does.  But the Town wanted/needed to claim the brick “plaza” in front of the building as open/gathering space.  Roadways can’t count as open space.  Hence the separate exit for the drive-through lane, and a pedestrian “plaza” in front.

I’ll note a couple of things.  First, I don’t think people are going to use that “plaza” because it’s too close to the 123 traffic to be pleasant.  So IMHO it’s there purely for looks.  And it’ll look the same whether people drive over it or not.  Second, the developers went ahead and put in protective bollards in front of the store front, as if to protect pedestrians from cars driving on that front “plaza”.  So it’s already set up to be a driveway.

In theory, then, the Town could tell Chick-fil-A that it could go back to its original plan, if it wanted to.  That would solve this issue for good, with some additional construction costs.  They’d close the separate drive-through exit where the transformers are, brick over that portion of the drive-through driveway, and have cars exit by crossing the front of the building, driving over what is now the brick “plaza”.

Anyway, at this point, I’m done.  I have no skin in the game.  I’m not going to shop there, my kids have graduated from Madison, and I have no reason to use that sidewalk.  I’m not a pedestrian safety expert, so it’s possible that I have made a mountain out of a molehill.  But I do bike and walk Maple all the time, and, in my considered opinion, this drive-through exit will take the prize as the worst entrance onto Maple.  At the minimum, I think it’s well worth having the Town have its own experts assess the situation, and, if the experts agree that this is a problem, do what they can to address the situation before Chick-fil-A opens.

Post #423: Town of Vienna, please add some pedestrian safety measures here (revised).

I think this is now the single most visually-obstructed entrance onto Maple Avenue, by a slight margin.  I’ll present details on that below.  All things considered, I think the Town ought to consider adding a few safety measures proactively.  Detail follows.

Note:  My original posting exaggerated the difference between the Chick-fil-A exit and another visually obstructed entrance on Maple.  This post is more nearly correct, based on more careful measurement.

Continue reading Post #423: Town of Vienna, please add some pedestrian safety measures here (revised).