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 #1138: 100 dwelling units per acre, up and down Maple Avenue

Now that the election is over, the Town has posted the first detailed look at its economic development study.  (Download it from this link, ,pdf).

Per the Town’s consultant, we need to put 2400 apartment on Maple merely to “catch up” with “competing” areas.  And we must stack those in at 100 dwelling units per acre, to be economically viable.
Continue reading Post #1138: 100 dwelling units per acre, up and down Maple Avenue

Post #1135: The final Town of Vienna May election.

N.B., That exceeds the population of Herndon because that’s total votes for all open seats, not total voters.

In Post #340, August 2019, I made the case for moving the Town of Vienna elections to November, to coincide with the general election.  If you think that voter participation is a good thing, all you had to do is look to the well-run Town of Herndon to see what happened to voter participation when they did that (above).

In Post #1059, I noted that the Virginia legislature had passed a bill moving all elections to November.  There’s some interesting detail there, including the fact that this was uniformly opposed by all Republican state legislators.

That bill has since been signed by Governor Northam.  As a result, this is probably the last May election in Town of Vienna history. Continue reading Post #1135: The final Town of Vienna May election.

Post #1134, COVID-19 trend to 5/3/2021, and a look at hospitalization and mortality rates

There’s no change in trend.  We’re 19 days past the peak of the U.S. fourth wave.  There is a slow downward trend in new COVID-19 cases per day.  We’re now 30% below the peak rate.  New case counts are declining steeply in the Northeast and are stable-to-declining in the other regions.

Continue reading Post #1134, COVID-19 trend to 5/3/2021, and a look at hospitalization and mortality rates

Post #1133: Robinson sidewalk bequest, odder and odder.


If you want the background, look at Post #532, Post #1056, Post #1096, and Post #1120.

Briefly, here’s the story up to now:  A former Town Council member left $7M (now $9M) in her will for use in constructing sidewalks in Vienna.  There’s a five-year time limit, starting more than two years ago.  The executor of that will imposed a limitation — not mentioned anywhere in the will itself — that the money could only be spent literally for the sidewalk, not anything else that you need to build a sidewalk.  No “curb and gutter”.   The Town’s staff then put a lot of effort into finding the streets where it already had curb and gutter in place, and in effect chose streets for sidewalks based on what concrete had been poured a half-century ago, instead of some objective measure of need.  And with that restriction, by my simple calculation, it was obvious that the Town wasn’t even going to be able to spend the interest that trust money would earn in five years, let alone spend the principal on new sidewalks.

In the last Town Council meeting, if you look at the details, turns out, they were just kidding about not paying for curb and gutter.  Hence the image above.  Of the first five projects for which the Town has approved construction funding under this bequest, and that the Robinson estate trustee has agreed to, sure looks like the trust is paying for curb and gutter for four of them.

The Town voted to approve the construction of those five projects without so much as a comment on the flip-flop.  And, apparently, with no change in their planning, despite drawing up those plans based on streets with existing curb and gutter.

In Vienna, decisions just kind of wander around until they stop.  And it looks like this is where this one has stopped.  It is what it is, and it’s not even all that unusual, in this context.  Looking on the bright side, after more than two years, they did manage to get some of the money allocated before the upcoming Town election.

My only due diligence on this, now, is to figure out what happened to the first three streets that the Town approved more than a year ago (Post #1056).  People forget about those.  They no longer appear on any of the documents, presumably because they’re a done deal.  And yet, I can’t seem to find where the Town did a similar funding approval for their construction.  (They approved only the money to pay for the engineering work that must be done prior to construction.)  The key question is whether the Town will approve the funding, for the first three, in time to get them built within the five-year window.  Or does the Town Council think they already did that?

Continue reading Post #1133: Robinson sidewalk bequest, odder and odder.

Post #1132: Getting to “Nay” in the Town of Vienna.


Yesterday I had to watch a bit of video of the last Vienna Town Council meeting.  I needed to find a number, and the only way to find it was to play the recording of the meeting and listen to what was said (Post #1128, regarding property taxes.)

As I scanned through that video, trying to find that number, I noticed an odd exchange.  It seem as if the Mayor was scolding Town Council members to remind them that the vote had to be unanimous.

I’m not sure I heard that right, but it was just weird enough to catch my attention.  It seemed like there was some sort of informal, unspoken agreement that everybody had to vote “Aye”.

This isn’t the sort of thing where you can just ask and expect to get a straight answer.  So, instead, I decided to check it empirically.   And while summarizing the votes doesn’t prove anything, I thought that it might be an interesting piece of data.

Continue reading Post #1132: Getting to “Nay” in the Town of Vienna.

Post #1131: Herd immunity: Why aren’t we there yet?

Warning:  This is a long and somewhat technical post.  There aren’t really any results to speak of.  If you don’t have a strong interest in the topic of herd immunity, there’s nothing much here for you.

With that out of the way, the short answer is that we really should be getting close to herd immunity now.  But there’s no sign of it, and it’s sure starting to look overdue at this point.  I provide some state-level estimates showing that, below.

Other than saying “we’ll get there when we get there”, can I point to anything that might plausibly explain why were NOT seeing herd immunity yet?

I don’t think it’s the data. The vaccine counts are tough to argue with.  And while we can dither over exactly how many people have had COVID-19 (versus the number formally diagnosed), I don’t think that’s the hangup, either.

At this point, my guess (and it is just a guess) is that the problem is the far-too-simple model that epidemiologists use to estimate what is required for herd immunity.  I can’t really say what’s wrong with it.  But I can say that if it’s correct, and the first estimates of the infectiousness of COVID-19 (the “R-nought”) were ballpark, then it’s getting to the point where there’s really no way to explain why we’re not seeing herd immunity yet, within that standard, simple model.

My best guess?  Non-homogeneity of the population.  The standard model for herd immunity relies on an assumption of homogeneity.  In effect, it assumes that immune individuals, still-at-risk individuals, and their interactions, are all randomized.  That’s the case where, on average, many immune individuals stand between the still-vulnerable individuals and the infected individuals, stopping spread of disease.  But if that’s not true — if the natural breaks within our society result in clustering the infected and the non-immune together — it seems to me that a pandemic can keep going well past the point where the averages suggest we should have reached herd immunity.

Continue reading Post #1131: Herd immunity: Why aren’t we there yet?