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A Streetcar Named Development

$110 million streetcar line could serve as catalyst for growth in Columbia Pike neighborhoods.

The County Board approved last week a preliminary plan to bring streetcars to Columbia Pike in hopes of fostering greater development along the south Arlington corridor.

The county envisions building a five-mile streetcar line from Pentagon City to the Skyline neighborhood of Fairfax County, at a cost in excess of $110 million.

Board members unanimously endorsed a "modified" streetcar system — with electric-powered vehicles running every six minutes and sharing the curbside travel lane with cars — over enhancing the current Metrobus service or providing a bus rapid transit alternative.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors agreed to the proposal during a meeting on Monday.

If the proposal becomes a reality, it would be the first streetcar line in the region, and could eventually be expanded to connect to a future system planned for the Anacostia section of Washington.

Arlington officials believe that a streetcar system can transform Columbia Pike into a more vibrant commercial and residential district, just as the introduction of Metro revamped the Rosslyn to Ballston corridor.

STREETCARS will encourage residents to use public transportation more frequently, and help create a pedestrian-friendly "main-street" environment along Columbia Pike, County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said during the April 26 meeting.

"This works well with the type of development we’re trying to achieve," Zimmerman said. "We want to ensure that the density that comes to Columbia Pike will promote transit ridership and not greater car use."

While the cost of the proposal is $100 million less than the premium streetcar plan the board also considered, the county has yet to detail how it would pay for the new transit system.

The county is expecting to use a minimum amount of federal funding to complete the project, and is planning to explore public-private partnerships, joint development and sponsorships to help defray costs. No matter the ultimate funding source, the first streetcar won’t be operational until close to 2012.

"It’s an exiting idea, but my big concern is that we’re raising expectations and not sure how we’re going to pay for it," County Board Vice Chairman Paul Ferguson said. "And it might take a while to materialize.

The desire to revitalize Columbia Pike, combined with booming development along the Fairfax-Arlington border, spurred the county to consider new modes of public transportation in order to decrease traffic on the surrounding roads.

"WE ARE already an urban community," said John Snyder, president of the Douglas Park Civic Association, abutting Columbia Pike. "We have a population density close to Rosslyn. What we don’t have is urban transportation.

Most surrounding neighborhood associations have enthusiastically endorsed the proposal, arguing that it will increase residents’ mobility and provide them with greater access to the road’s plethora of restaurants and shops.

"We have to be able to move people up and down the Pike," said Lander Allin, a resident of the Alcova Heights neighborhood. "We need a system that gets people out of their cars."

Once completed, daily ridership is predicted to more than double, and the travel time across the Pike would drop from 27 minutes to 19 minutes, county officials said.

Board members said they ultimately settled on the modified streetcar plan because residents are more likely to ride in a sleek, quiet and reliable streetcar over a noisy bus.

When a similar streetcar service replaced buses in Tacoma, Wash., ridership jumped by 500 percent in the first year.

"I know a lot of people who won’t get onto a bus, but will get onto a rail," County Board member Jay Fisette said. "It’s just a fact."

The streetcar service would provide Columbia Pike residents with access to Metro via the Pentagon City Stop. Board members also left open the possibility of extending service to the Pentagon, though that would add $20 million to the project’s price tag.

The county views streetcars as a potential catalyst for economic development and hopes it will attract high-income families to the Pike.

When Portland installed streetcars, more than $2.8 billion worth of private investment sprouted within two blocks of the line.

"This will help bring investors … because it provides a sense of permanency," said County Board member Barbara Favola.

Many public speakers at the April 26 board meeting were critical of the streetcar proposal.

DUE TO the uncertainties surrounding funding, the board would be wise to spend more time studying the bus rapid transit alternative before coming to a decision, said John Carten, chair of the county’s Transit Advisory Committee.

Frank Emerson said he worries that the street’s "lanes are so narrow that trucks and buses would have trouble passing each other." Other Arlington residents expressed concern over whether Columbia Pike would come to a standstill during power outages.

Allen Muchnick, representing the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said that streetcar tracks represent a threat to residents on bikes, who could get their wheels trapped in the grooves.

Yet the greatest gripe from those in attendance was over the cost. Since the county is already searching for $66 million to complete the North Tract athletic and aquatic complex and more than $100 million to refurbish Four-Mile Run Stream, some are asking how Arlington officials will be able to generate the necessary funding.

"I have the distinct impression that Arlington taxpayers are being taken to the cleaners," said Tim Wise, president of the Arlington Taxpayers Association.