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

Posted on May 7, 2021

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.