0
Votes

Construction Costs Threaten Future Building Projects

County Manager Carlee outlines his recommendations for the county's new six-year Capital Improvement Program.

County Manager Ron Carlee released his proposal for a six-year, $611.5 million Capital Improvement Program last week, but warned that rapidly escalating construction costs will force the county to "re-assess" its building program and possibly delay several prominent projects.

In the coming years the county needs to focus on completing projects that are already underway or have been approved by the County Board, and not try to over-extend its resources on new undertakings, Carlee wrote in a report.

"THE FOCUS is let's do maintenance of facilities and fulfill the commitments we made to the community on capital projects," said Deputy County Manager Barbara Donnellan. "The cost of construction is increasing at such a rate that we need more funds to complete other projects."

Construction costs regionwide have increased by 15 percent over the past two years, and risen by 24 percent since the beginning of 2003. In comparison, construction costs rose by less than 1 percent per year from 1997 to 2002.

The soaring costs of materials and intense competition with the private sector for the best contractors has boosted the amount the county has to pay construction companies.

Due to rising construction costs the county has to acknowledge that some new building initiatives may not go forward as planned, County Board member Jay Fisette said.

"It's time to be realistic about what we can and can't do," Fisette added. "We all like saying 'yes,' but there are times when part of the job, and our responsibility, is to also say 'no.'"

Over the past few years the county has invested in infrastructure at one of the highest rates since Metro first came to Arlington in 1979. The county has also recently embarked on an ambitious program to upgrade many buildings that were constructed in the middle of the 20th century.

The CIP is a planning document that outlines Arlington's long-range capital objectives, and includes funding for maintenance upkeep, the county's contributions to Metro and $10 million for the acquisition of parks and open spaces.

Carlee is proposing $30.15 million in supplemental funding for fiscal year 2007, and is recommending a fall bond referendum package of $77.2 million.

The County Board will hold a public hearing to solicit input from the public before its first CIP work session on May 25.

The county manager's recommendation includes $36 million for projects that have been approved by either the County Board or Arlington voters in a bond referendum, but need additional funding. Among these projects, Fire Station No. 3 in Cherrydale requires an additional $13 million, the Westover Library $8 million and a further $5.9 million for neighborhood conservation initiatives.

"What we have planned is costing us much more than anticipated," County Board member Barbara Favola said.

Carlee has identified the redevelopment of Arlington Mill Community Center as one of his top priorities for the CIP, and would like to allocate $29 million to do so. The county is exploring the possibility of a public-private partnership to help defray costs of rebuilding the community center, which currently is housed in a converted Safeway.

Board member Favola said that south Arlington desperately needs a large community center to accommodate the demand for recreational and educational space.

THE SITE "was never intended to be a long-term solution," Favola added. "Of all the community centers it is more heavily used than any of the others."

Several desired county projects may have to be deferred or re-evaluated because of a lack of funding, including traffic-calming measures, streetscape enhancements and park improvements.

"Some things will take longer to do and the time frame adjusted, and others we will have to do differently or look for opportunities to economize," said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman.

Arlington has been able to maintain the highest possible rating from all three major agencies, which enables the county to borrow at a reduced rate.

The board has restricted debt to less than 10 percent of its operating budget in order to protect its bond rating, which Fisette calls "sacrosanct."

"I expect the board would do nothing to jeopardize that," Fisette said.

Yet the board may soon have to choose between raising its debt level or scuttling its ambitious slate of projects now in the pipeline.

The county does not possess the $66 million needed to complete the second phase of the North Tract aquatic and recreation complex, or the $40 million required to complete the western entrance to the Ballston Metro.

Neither project is included in the county manager's CIP proposal, meaning that two of the board's pet projects may take a little longer than originally expected, county officials said.