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|The D.C. Council will vote tomorrow on one of the biggest economic
questions it has ever faced: whether to approve financing for the proposed convention
center at Mt. Vernon Square. Proponents argue that the project would reinvigorate the
Districts economy, creating thousands of jobs and spin-off economic development.
But a recent investigation by the Washington Post and new questions brought to light in a marathon hearing on the topic Friday should persuade the Council that more time is needed to answer troubling issues before Councilmembers make their final decision.
The most troubling questions include:
1. Whether the Mt. Vernon plan, whose costs have spiraled from $444 million to $737 million (according to the GAO), will result in a convention center whose useful life is longer than ten years. Reporting by the Washington Post revealed this week that the answer is no....Yet taxpayers will be repaying the debt on the facility for 34 years, according to the financing legislation.
2. Whether there is an honest guaranteed maximum price on the project. An inch-thick redacted version of the guaranteed maximum price contract was distributed to D.C. Councilmembers at 9 p.m. Friday, hardly allowing time for a thorough review before the vote Tuesday. Yet even a cursory glance brings to light such disturbing clauses as the one that entitles the construction manager to a budget increase in the case of unforeseen site conditions and hazardous material remediation. Considering that the project would entail the largest excavation project for a building ever undertaken in the region, unforeseen site conditions are a given. In other words, whereas the cramped Mt. Vernon site would not allow room for expansion, its guaranteed maximum price contract most likely would.
3. Whether the project will be a union job site. Union leaders at the hearing announced that the construction manager had broken off negotiations toward a project labor agreement, greatly reducing the likelihood that union labor would be used at Mt. Vernon Square, or union apprenticeship programs would be part of the construction scenario. This raises questions as to the most often repeated justification for the project: jobs. If wages will be pushed down by budget pressures, and if young people will not get the training that will give them real opportunity for jobs in construction industries in the future, what exactly is the benefit to D.C. residents?
4. Why the promising alternative at Union Station North was never explored by entities other than Mt. Vernon proponents. This is perhaps the most troubling question of all, since preliminary investigation by the Committee of 100 on the Federal City indicates that a convention center at Union Station North could be built for $227 million less, with room to expand. If this is true, the alternative could offer solutions to the fundamental problems at Mt. Vernon. The lower costs at Union Station -- primarily due to single-level, at-grade construction (a much simpler undertaking than the massive excavation required at Mt. Vernon) could alleviate cost pressures that threaten the ability of the project to generate good jobs and real training.
The D.C. Council should table the convention center financing legislation Tuesday, allowing a 45-day period during which these questions can be answered. An independent office such as that of the Chief Financial Officer could be designated to do the research. This approach would not only show that the Council takes seriously its fiduciary responsibility regarding D.C.s new convention center, but that it is fit to take its rightful role as the primary legislative entity in the District of Columbia.
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