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Alexandria Grapples With Increasing Debt, But Some Say It's Worth It

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Alexandria's elected officials have been spending more money in recent years, raising fears of unsustainable debt.
Alexandria's elected officials have been spending more money in recent years, raising fears of unsustainable debt.

In Virginia, leaders in Alexandria are facing an ever-increasing pool of red ink.

Over the last decade, the city of Alexandria's debt has more than doubled from $200 million to more than $500 million. That's a burden that would increase if the city decides to take on more debt to finance construction of a new Metro station at Potomac Yard, which would cost anywhere from $200 million to $460 million, a price that would violate the city's own debt limit.

"Their hands are tied in a way, and that's what happens when you run up against those limits, which I think have served them well for years and I can't imagine that anyone would want to, politically, you wouldn't want to go over those limits," says Stephen Fuller, the director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

Critics say the city has engaged in a spending spree over the last decade, building a $110 million high school and an $80 million police station.

"Do we have to be building the Taj Mahal here in Alexandria? And that is basically what has happened," says Frank Fannon, a former City Councilman.

Others say city officials must think carefully about how to proceed in Potomac Yard, arguing that investing in a Metro system will increase the value of the land and bring more tax revenue to the city. Frank Shafroth at the Center for State and Local Leadership says it reminds him of the days when Metro was originally proposed and it received a chilly reception.

"Every single chamber of commerce in the Washington metropolitan area adamantly opposed it. The cost of borrowing to build that system would be overwhelming and was unaffordable and the risk was too great," he says.

In other words, Shafroth says, sometimes the risk pays off.

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