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Next Stop: the Future

Public forums in Arlington and Fairfax this week will determine the future of mass transit on Columbia Pike.

Buses outfitted with yellow-and-black Pike Ride signs pull up outside the Pentagon City Metro station every morning, sharing space with Arlington Transit buses as passengers stream down the escalators to catch trains into D.C.

With Spanish signs proclaiming “Más Transit!”, the Metrobuses running along Columbia Pike arrive at Pentagon City at a rate of one every six minutes, said Arlington transit program supervisor James Hamre. “It’s like watching the Orange Line.”

At a series of public forums this week, officials from Arlington, Fairfax and Metro hope to determine what future transit system will run the four-mile length of Columbia Pike, stretching from Pentagon City to Bailey’s Crossroads.

Under consideration are a range of buses and rail systems, from light-rail trains to streetcars, from limited-service bus rapid transit to buses in the style of current Metrobuses. Costs vary widely from proposal to proposal, from $100,000 to $5 million per vehicle.

But the hard-and-fast figures will not be the starting point for this week’s discussions, say Pike transit planners. “The information isn’t complete at this point,” said Robin McElhenny, Pike transit project manager for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority that runs Metro.

In fact, the whole point of this week’s meetings is to get that information. “We’re not coming forward with a recommendation of what should be there,” said Hamre. “We’re looking for people to tell us what’s important to them.”

Any transit on Columbia Pike, whether it’s a bus rapid transit system, a series of streetcars or some new technology, won’t make its appearance for years to come.

“The realities of the situation are, there’s not a lot of money to do anything,” said Charles Badger, assistant director for public transportation in the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing the planning and laying the ground work.”

<b>PLANNING FOR TRANSIT</b> is really just another step in the decade-long process of envisioning the future of the Pike, said Chris Zimmerman, County Board member and resident of a Pike-area neighborhood.

“This is the last big pieces, and the opportunity to follow up on all that stuff we’ve been doing for years,” he said.

Zimmerman will watch the transit planning process up close, but doesn’t want to offer any recommendations to his neighbors. “I don’t want to prescribe it, I want it to be a collective thing,” said Zimmerman.

To decide what transit system best fits the Pike and its residents, Zimmerman said, planners need to know what is of paramount importance: a smooth ride? a quiet ride, inside and out? a clean, pollution-free ride? a convenient exit, with a bus or train low and close to the curb?

There are also decisions to be made about where the bus will run, and where it will stop, said Hamre. “Through the planning process,” he said, “the community has made it clear they want transportation to stay within the bounds of Columbia Pike.”

But that still leaves lots of options: How many bus stops or streetcar stations should there be? Where should they be — the same place as current bus stops? Should buses or trains run along the center of the street, or hug the curb?

<b>ANSWERING ALL</b> those questions will take time, as will finding funding to build whatever system is finally picked.

But there will be small steps along the way, said Zimmerman. “Yeah, it’s long term. But some of it is shorter term,” he said, pointing to the Pike Ride bus service introduced last fall.

At morning and afternoon rush hours, there are now 22 Pike Ride buses running to and from the Pentagon City Metrorail station, and the county is already planning upgrades to that service.

Over the next few years, the county will upgrade the Pike Ride bus stops into “super stops,” said Hamre, adding larger and more attractive shelters at the stops. Those shelters will include “intelligent transportation systems”: the electronic signs in Metro that track when the next car will arrive, while also offering a public announcement service.

Those stops could become the future stations for a Pike transit system, said Hamre, or could be phased out as development moves along the corridor.

For example, he said, “where the bus stop is now at Columbia Pike and Buchanan Street: if Goodwill gets developed as something new, we’d probably redevelop that [stop] to better serve the community.”

<b>THAT’S HOW TRANSIT</b> will come to Columbia Pike, Hamre said — little by little.

“The idea is, we’re not going to wait for the future to get here. We’re going to start working to get there. These are just steps along the way.”