#532: Last night’s 2/24/2020 Town Council meeting – CORRECTED

Posted on February 25, 2020

Correction:  I looked at the wrong block(s) of Plum Street.  The one block in question does not, in fact, have a sidewalk now.

The Town has already posted its video recording of last night’s meeting.  You should access that by clicking the relevant “media” link on this page of the Town’s Granicus website.

To cut to the chase:  There was not a peep about the (now) $10M parking garage — see just-prior post.  Or about the $1M increase in cost for a proposed Church Street garage, for that matter.  Not a peep about the revised Capital Plan for $35M in borrowings this year.  Again, see just-prior post.  Those two items took maybe ten minutes in total.  But there was more than an hour discussion of sidewalks, leading to a decision to authorize three stretches of sidewalk (on Plum, Cabin, and Holmes) using funds from the Robinson estate.

Those sidewalks were chosen by … the Trustee of the Maude Robinson estate.  At least a couple of Town Council members understood how irrational that decision process was (Majdi, Noble), though I did not see any progress in arriving at something more rational.  One, by contrast (Colbert), applauded the process as democracy in action, or something.

I’m not sure that anyone sitting at that table even realized that Plum already has a sidewalk down its entire length I goofed.  At one point, in response to questions, the Town clarified Plum to mean Plum between Cottage and Tapawingo.  I looked at the other side of Cottage.  The block between Cottage and Tapwingo does not, in fact, have a sidewalk.  This paragraph was wrong, and the discussion of fraction of money spent is also wrong.  This post corrects those.  So that the discussion of Plum was about adding a second sidewalk, while other streets in Vienna have no sidewalk?  I guess, in the overall context of having no particular plan for using this money, a little detail like that hardly matters.

Still, even though this is “free”, I’d have thought that somebody might have brought it up before agreeing to the use of funds.  But that’s the bottom line for all the big decisions at this meeting:  If it’s “free”, you don’t have to think about it much.  And I’d say that pretty much  characterized this meeting.

Summarizing the meeting in two word problems

Disclaimer:  I always liked word problems.  Then again, I ended up being a math major in college.  Math-wise, there is no finer way to separate the sheep from the goats than simple word problems.  And after last night’s Town Council meeting, I’d say we’ve got seven goats on the dais.

There were two items of interest, to me, on last night’s agenda:  The Patrick Henry Parking Garage*, and the Robinson Estate Sidewalk Initiative.  Each involved a simple word problem that neither I nor the Town of Vienna Town Council appears to be able to answer correctly.  See if you can come up with the right answer, below.

* and library

So here are your word problems, and the associated writeup of the meeting.


Problem 1:  The Patrick Henry Parking Garage

Problem:  The Town of Vienna wants to make a large parking garage the centerpiece of its new downtown.  This garage has been repeatedly discussed as costing $4.5M.  At the last minute, with no explanation, the cost is quoted as $9M (see just prior post). (Well, really, $10M, but what’s another mil or so between friends?)  When you compare the new cost to the old cost, would you say that the cost has:

  1. Doubled
  2. Halved
  3. Undefined/impossible to say.

Answer:  3.  It’s a trick question, because division by zero is undefined.  That’s because the garage is actually “free”, as far as the Town of Vienna is concerned.

So this turns out to be a question about irrationality.  As in, dividing by zero.  And as in, making decisions about spending when you aren’t paying the bills.

Recall that we’re trying to con the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) into paying for this garage, on the pretext that it will be used by Vienna Metro commuters.  (I’m not kidding, see Post #515 most recently, and see a more rational and linear discussion of the same issue in (e.g.) Post #447, and my favorite, reductio ad absurdum, Post #446.  (The absurdum part is that we’re not merely claiming that some spaces might be used by Vienna Metro commuters, we’re claiming that all the spaces will.)

So, why did the cost of the garage suddenly double?  Nobody even asked that question.  Because, well, if it’s free, who cares?

I can only guess that the Town has gotten the high sign from NVTC that their application will be approved.  And so, as long as you’re ripping off the government, you might as well rip off as much as you can.  Hence, the formerly $4.5M garage turns into a $9M garage, and nobody on Town council as much as cleared their throat over it.

(OK, in fairness, Councilman Springsteen did say one sentence to the effect of “this is more than I recall this having been”, or something.  But that’s it.  That’s the sum total of Town Council reaction to the doubling of the nominal price tag.)

Correspondingly, this “division by zero”  explains why I couldn’t see the impact of this in the Town’s proposed Capital Improvement Plan.  It doesn’t affect Town borrowing, because the Town assumes it’s going to be “free” (that is, paid by somebody else’s tax dollars).

But here’s the downside:  what you see really is what you’re going to get.  And by that, I mean this:

See if you put this together the same way I do.

  1.  The garage is going to be “free”.  Given that, how much do you want to bet that the Town is going to want to put up the biggest one that will fit on the lot?  (Because, otherwise, we’re turning down free money, right?)
  2. There was an offhand comment by the representative of Fairfax County at this meeting, to the effect of how much she liked the design with the library on the first floor, with a big parking garage above it.   So you’re looking at a design that Fairfax finds attractive, above.
  3. The Town isn’t planning to do any estimate of how much parking it needs in this area until after it funds both this and the Church Street garages.  So there will be no upper bound on the amount of parking that somebody can argue is useful in the new downtown Vienna.

I put all that together and my inescapable conclusion is that, with Fairfax County’s help and blessing, the Town is going to build the biggest parking garage that will fit on that lot.  (With a library attached, somewhere.)  And that, given the Town’s current drive for “economic development”, that garage is going to be the excuse for additional high-density commercial development in the downtown area.

So, Town Council may make noises about this or that, but the building you see above is what you ought to expect.  Because a pedestrian-friendly multimodal walkable downtown is so important, the centerpiece of the new Vienna will be the municipal parking garage.  With attached library.

Extra extras for experts (defining a value-destroying transaction):  The Town of Vienna builds a garage at a cost of $53,191 per parking space ($10M/188).  It borrows money at the rate of 2.5% per year in order to finance that.  That parking place will be used by a Metro commuter, who would otherwise have to pay $5/day, M-F, to park at the Vienna Metro.

Question:  If all the money that is saved by that Metro commuter is dedicated to servicing that loan, how long will it take the Town of Vienna to pay off that loan?  (In other words, how does the value of that space compare to the cost, where this space is being used, as the Town asserts, by a Vienna Metro commuter.)

Results (per this website):

So the answer is never.  The savings to the Metro commuter (for parking costs) amount to $1304 per year.  The interest on the loan is more than that.  Providing Metro parking, in this fashion, at this cost, is a value-destroying enterprise.  You take perfectly useful concrete, steel, and labor, and turn it into a parking place that’s worth less than the cost of the inputs.

This just further reinforces that the Town’s claim that this is going to be a Metro commuter parking garage is simply a fraud.

But I’m going to end this by pointing out that it’s not a harmless fraud.  Here, “free” has the same corrosive effect it does for any type of economic enterprise.  It leads to irrational decision-making.

And so we find ourselves stumbling our way towards making a parking garage the focus of the Vienna downtown.   And yet, while that’s the reality of it, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say, in a public meeting, what small-town Vienna really needs, for a vibrant and pedestrian-friendly downtown, is a great big parking garage at the corner of Maple and Center.

Instead, this crystallizes what passes for planning in Vienna.  The actual causal chain is that we are lying about how the garage will be used in order to make it “free” for us.  And, given that it’s “free”, we will of course ask for the largest one we can get.  And that’s how Vienna decided that a great big parking garage should be the centerpiece of the downtown.

Problem 2:  The Robinson Estate Sidewalk Initiative

Problem 2:  The Commonwealth of Virginia says that standard 5′ ribbon sidewalk costs about $30 per linear foot.  (See reference in Post #521).  The Robinson Estate has granted the Town up to $7M to spend on sidewalks.  How many linear miles of sidewalk must the Town choose in order to use up the full $7M gift?

Hint 1:  7,000,000 ÷ 30 = 233,333.  Hint 2:  233,333 ÷ 5,280 = 44+

Reference number:  In total, Vienna has about 65 miles of publicly-maintained roadways (reference).

  1. The Town must decide on about 44 miles of sidewalks.
  2. The Town must decide on about 22 miles of sidewalks.
  3. The Town must decide on about zero miles of sidewalks.

The apparent correct answer is 3), the Town does not need to decide on any miles of sidewalks.  At least that’s how it has worked out so far.  Because instead of having some rational plan, the Town had the trustee for Maude Robinson’s estate decided on which sidewalks to build.  Which is only the first of many aspects of this that makes no sense whatsoever.

My senior moment.  First, I must admit that when the Town talked about adding a sidewalk to Plum Street, I had a true senior moment.  For the life of me, I thought I remembered having frequently walked the length of Plum Street on the sidewalk.  Am I getting that old that I’m confused about which streets do and don’t have sidewalks?

Nah.  There’s a sidewalk on Plum, but only on one side.  So the Town is talking about putting a second sidewalk on Plum, to match the existing sidewalk.  Somehow, in the entire hour-long discussion, that never came out.  And I’ll bet that all (or most) of the Town Council members who voted in favor of that had no idea that Plum already had a sidewalk.  Along its full length.  See correction above — I had to listen to the detail of the meeting to understand that they were talking about one block of Plum that does not have any sidewalk.  This also greatly reduces the total amount of sidewalk that was discussed.

In any event, Town Council voted to have a grand total of about 0.68 0.45 miles of sidewalk put in, under this funding initiative, or about 1.0% of the total that they need to use up the money.  (And if you don’t like my $30/foot figure for the cost of sidewalks, substitute any reasonable one of your own.  You’ll come to the conclusion that if that trust fund will only pay for sidewalks, using up that money is a daunting task.)

As for the rest of the discussion, I was so discouraged that I have a hard time even writing this up.  In no particular order:

  • As I discussed in Post #, the Robinson trust will only pay for literally sidewalk, not for curb, gutter,  storm water management, or similar.  (In my professional field, we have a phrase, “incident to”, to describe costs associated with doing something.  (So, Medicare pays not just for physicians’ services, but for items incident to physicians’ services, such as drugs that must be administered by a physician.)  So, even though curb and gutter are clearly incident to the creation of new sidewalk, the Robinson trust will not pay for them.  And, as discouraging, we learned last night that there are residual legatees of the trust — that is, people who will inherit the money if the Town doesn’t spend it.  So there are definitely people who have a vested interest in interpreting the terms of the trust as narrowly as possible, so as to result in the largest amount left in the trust after the Town has had the use of it.
  • So, the question came up, can’t the Town pay for (e.g.) the curb and gutter, and the response was … unclear.  Weirdly, in a Town Council meeting where they were literally in the process of changing the capital improvement plan (to account for a proposed $35M in borrowings this year), the answer seemed to be that no, we can’t do that because it would require changing the capital improvement plan.
  • At least two Town Council members pointed out that we need to do this — identify which sidewalks will be created under this trust — in a more rational fashion — Majdi at length, and Noble at less length.  But I didn’t hear any of that get to the point of having an actual plan.
  • Town staff mentioned the various public meetings on selecting these sidewalks, giving me another senior moment:  What public meetings?  Turns out, there weren’t “public” meetings in the sense of inviting the public.  Instead, the Robinson estate trustee selected five street segments, from a list provided by Town staff, and letters were mailed to houses on those streets.
  • Does the Town have a map of which street segments already have curb and gutter but not sidewalk?  No.  Can the Town provide the curb and gutter if the Robinson estate pays for the sidewalk?  Not clearly answered.   How does this fit in with the pedestrian master plan?  It doesn’t .   How will this be made to fit in with the pedestrian master plan?  Not clear.
  • Follow-up mailing.  There must have been ten minutes devoted to the idea that many people failed to respond to the Town’s mailing.  But the phrase “follow up mailing” never came up. Near as I can tell, there is no plan for any type of follow-up mailing.

In general, I think Town staff saw that they had to get cracking on this, to start getting the money spent.  And so they did, to come up with some plausible street segments to spend the money on.

But I get the impression that they were relying on Town Council to come up with some better, more rational plan.  And that’s what didn’t happen, and doesn’t appear to be happening.  Some people didn’t think we had the time to do that, given the lags in constructing sidewalks (apparently it takes two years for the Town to put in a sidewalk.)   Somehow, the idea that this unique  time-limited $7MN gift might require — I don’t know, some extraordinary effort at planning for its use — just didn’t penetrate.  And at least one Town Council member (Colbert) thought the existing process, whereby the Town picked these three street segments — was just fine.

So, barring further action, it looks like this will proceed as follows:

  • The Town will only consider spending these funds on the (roughly ) 25 street segments that already have curb and gutter.
  • The rules for go/no go on any particular street segment (in terms of neighborhood approval) are not clearly defined.
  • There is no may of those 25 street segments, nor any plan for finding some way to expand beyond those 25 street segments.

If I had to guess, I’d say that the bulk of the Robinson estate sidewalk bequest is going to be unused by the Town of Vienna, within the five-year window allowed for in that bequest.