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Competition For Streetcars?

Debate about public-private partnerships will have lasting consequences in Arlington.

Arlington County will make "best efforts to promote robust competition" and "strive to have more than one proposal" under consideration for the public-private partnership to construct a streetcar on Columbia Pike. But opponents fear that guidelines, approved after a contentious County Board meeting last year, do not require competition. For critics, "strive" and "best efforts" isn't good enough.

"Striving is fine, but it's not a real test of the marketplace," said Peter Rousselot, spokesman for Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. "It makes perfect sense to us, at least on the big contracts, to insist that there be at least one other bid against which you can measure the competitiveness of the first bid."

If Arlington received an unsolicited proposal, county officials say public notice would be posted. Then the county would advertise for competitive bids, although officials acknowledge that they may never receive a second proposal. Even though the guidelines do not require a second bid, county leaders say, sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent against a no-bid contract.

"We will not do a sole-source award to any one firm based on an unsolicited proposal," said Michelle Cowan, director of the Department of Management and Finance. "That will not happen."

ARLINGTON COUNTY leaders have been planning to install a streetcar system on Columbia Pike for years, a project that has increased in cost from $161 million to $250 million. Late last year, County Board members considered an amendment to the purchasing resolution creating a set of guidelines for transportation public-private partnerships. Newly elected County Board member Libby Garvey waged an unsuccessful battle to require a longer window than 45 days, a timeframe she says does not allow for enough time.

"It's a very lucrative contract, and a lot of companies should be interested in this," said Garvey. "For a really small project, you wouldn't want to require more than 45 days, but for a really large project like this I think it's obvious you would."

Garvey was also critical of the process, which she said did not allow for a thorough review. The guidelines were not considered by the Transportation Commission, for example, or the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission. When asked about this, county officials responded that amendments to the purchasing resolution are not usually considered in those settings beforehand, and that both of those commissions were briefed after the fact.

"Briefing is not the same as consulting," said Garvey. "Being briefed about something that has already happened is a little different from asking people to think about it and come back, so that's a very different role."

ALTHOUGH GARVEY wanted to see a longer waiting period and a thorough vetting by the commissions, she said in an interview this week that she is not in favor of changing the guidelines to require a second bid. That's where she and Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit part ways. Rousselot said his organization would like to see the guidelines changed to require a second bid before a contract is awarded.

"This is a circumstance where the amount of money proposed to be awarded conceivably could be more than $100 million or more," said Rousselot. "There should be a mandatory second bid."

Critics of the streetcar project point to a study recently conducted by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which criticized Virginia's Public Private Transportation Act as putting profits ahead of sound transportation plan. Garvey and Rousselot both pointed to the Silver Line project, which was awarded without a second bid and has since spiraled in cost. Supporters of the project say the deal has already been done, and that years of land-use planning has already been conducted with the promise of a streetcar trundling up and down Columbia Pike. Meanwhile, county officials say, whether or not a second bid is received is a matter for the free market.

"We will use best efforts to promote competition and will strive to have more than one proposal," Cowan said.