Columbia Pike Streetcar Drives Heated Procurement Debate
Arlington County Board adopts rules that allow public-private partnerships to finance major transportation projects.
By Jason Spencer
December 11, 2012
The Arlington County Board on Monday adopted guidelines that will allow public-private partnerships to help finance major transportation projects, like the Columbia Pike streetcar, after an unusually heated discussion.
Board member Libby Garvey, who was elected in November to her first full four-year term partially on a platform that included opposing the streetcar, fought an uphill battle all night.
She fought — with question after question, after question, after question.
For about three hours, the board dissected the Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act and pages of new or amended county procurement guidelines.
Garvey insisted that the guidelines did not include enough public safeguards — that the new policy would allow a large company would swoop in with an unsolicited bid and that the county would then rush through a public hearing so that people wouldn't have time to understand what was being proposed.
"If we vote today, we are one vote away from awarding the contract for the streetcar," Garvey said.
Board Chairwoman Mary Hynes disagreed, saying the board had put in a substantial public review process.
"Excuse me," Hynes said, cutting Garvey off. "You were allowed to put your interpretation out."
"This is not an interpretation. This is a legal fact," Garvey said.
"No," Hynes said. "… If a large, complex project comes in, we will take a sufficient amount of time. No one wants to make a bad investment in this community. Everyone wants to try to achieve our goals."
Garvey tried to force language that would require the county to continue seeking bids on large projects — like the $250 million streetcar system — in order to make the process more competitive. Hynes and board member Jay Fisette asserted that if the county received only one bid on a certain project, and that bid was no good, it would be thrown out.
County Manager Barbara Donnellan said Arlington already faces regular situations where only one bid is received on certain projects.
"We have a lot of bids that come in that way," she said. "The board approves them, and we do, too. That's the way it goes."
Noticeably quiet much of the night was board member Chris Zimmerman.
In October, Zimmerman notified his colleagues that he was doing some consulting work limited to Quebec for AECOM Canada East, which is affiliated with the global company AECOM. AECOM has worked with Arlington County on a number of projects, including reviewing streetcar cost estimates and helping brief the board on public-private partnerships.
Last week, Garvey made public a series of emails in which she expressed concern about the new procurement guidelines and suggested Zimmerman should recuse himself from any vote.
Aside from one procedural comment, Zimmerman spoke only at the end of the night, at which time he talked about his obligation to "maintain the highest ethical standards." He said he always tried to disclose more than what was legally required of him.
Zimmerman cited counsel by County Attorney Stephen MacIssac that his work did not constitute a conflict of interest or appearance of conflict. Despite how "attractive" it may have been to recuse himself Monday night, he said he had an obligation to vote. And should a conflict arise, he said, he would take the appropriate action — disclose, recuse or reconsider his professional involvement.
"What's before us tonight is a procedural action," Zimmerman said. "It does not determine who builds the streetcar."
Afterward, Fisette said he didn't begrudge Garvey her opposition to the streetcar. But, he said, some of the "emphasis and tactics" she used were "unfair."
Fisette said the board "painstakingly" went through the procurement guidelines line by line in order to entertain any reasonable alternatives. But the board couldn't go along with limiting the county and its administration's ability to do business, he said.
"If you're only talking about the streetcar, then you can design the guidelines for this one thing," he said. "But that's not what we're doing."
The board adopted the guidelines 4-1, with Garvey casting the dissenting vote.