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Planners Preview Transit Ideas

Public offers comment on Columbia Pike transit proposals

A new transit system along Columbia Pike is still in the works, and in a series of meetings Monday and Tuesday, the public got a chance to preview the ideas planners will put forth in a coming final report. But local residents have an array of opinions on how the plan should proceed.

The report, according to Jason Mumford — a consultant hired by authorities with Pike Transit Initiative to oversee its creation — will be issued during the summer, suggesting a handful of options for local officials to pursue. One is a light rail or trolley system running along a six-mile track down the center of the road. An improved bus system is a second possibility. The study also examines the feasibility of installing a Metro line, but Mumford said planners are concerned that idea would be more problematic than others.

"Some previous studies established the cross section of the Pike we examined," said Mumford. "One thing that was determined is that Columbia Pike shouldn't be widened. Many feel that the project shouldn't detract from the pedestrian streetscape that is there." Mumford said preserving the Pike as a pedestrian-friendly area is among the report's stated goals, along with improving the local community's ability to reach Metro lines. But breathing new life into the Pike's economy, Mumford said, is a top priority.

Although some residents expressed concern that the new system brings the potential for increased development in the Pike corridor, Mumford said the area has already opened to developers drawn to it by Arlington's form-based code — a set of zoning laws offering incentives to developers who agree to construct buildings according to county guidelines — and improved transportation will be necessary as the local population increases.

"In Arlington, form-based code is enabling denser development," said Mumford. "Columbia Pike is an area developers are looking at, and there is pressure to have more business there."

FROM AN AESTHETIC standpoint, Mumford said, the various options planners are exploring have various bonuses and drawbacks.

"There's a trade-off between using a system that runs on diesel, a compressed natural gas engine, or using an electric one," said Mumford. "An engine is noisy and it gives off exhaust. But an electric trolley could mean that we'd have to run a wire over the street that some people might not like because of the way it looks."

During Tuesday's meeting in Falls Church, Fairfax County Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason District) said the extension of transit services across the county line will also revive the economy in the Skyline community, located on Route 7 near Bailey's Crossroads.

"This is a collaborative process between Arlington and Fairfax County," said Gross. "If you look back to the history of Skyline, you see that it was built because everyone was told there was going to be a Metro stop there but, of course, it was never built. This is an opportunity to bring transit to Skyline and revitalize the neighborhood."

Assuming that no new transit work is done on the Pike, and automobile traffic increases at the current rate, the transit initiative states the average ride time on the current bus system will be about 27 minutes. Continuing with the bus system already in place also means a $28 million investment to upgrade the existing line. By installing a new bus rapid transit (BRT) system — a line of long buses capable of carrying more people faster — that time drops to between 18 and 20 minutes. Streetcars offer about the same reduction in travel time. But with every option put forth, motorists will see up to a 7 percent increase in the amount of time it takes to get from place to place.

But not everyone is pleased with the project, which the Pike Transit Initiative estimates will cost between $110 and $200 million depending on what option is pursued.

"It's just a waste of money," said John O'Neill. a 71-year-old resident of Pentagon City and a former member of Arlington's Transportation Committee.

O'Neill took particular issue with the idea of a trolley system, an idea he has seen put to work in other communities like San Francisco.

"Too many of these systems are designed for show," O'Neill said. "The question is, are we building it for the people who live and work there or are we building it for tourists?"

O'Neill also cautioned that the form-based code governing new construction along the pike grants developers a high degree of flexibility that could mean a lot more highrise buildings.

"People are going to be really unhappy when they wake up and find out what developers and the county can do with that," said O'Neill.