Back in October 2010, Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition chairman Tim Lovain feared what he called a "disaster" on the horizon — transit corridor commuters may be facing a day when they would have to get off an Arlington streetcar and board an Alexandria bus. Now that disaster could become a reality as the two neighboring jurisdictions are moving in different directions, with Arlington seeking Small Starts funding for the Columbia Pike streetcar project and Alexandria seeking Small Starts funding from the Federal Transit Administration for the Crystal City Potomac Yard transit corridor.
"It’s fair to say there’s competition," said Lovain, a former member of the Alexandria City Council. "But there may also be a solution."
Behind the scenes, Lovain and others have been urging officials on both sides of Four Mile Run to broker a compromise. Instead of extending the streetcar line from the border of Arlington to the Braddock Road Metro. The alternative scenario under discussion would terminate the streetcar line at the new Potomac Yard Metro station, the location of which has yet to be determined. Arlington and Alexandria would then enter a joint application for a Small Starts grant that would include a stop at the Arlington side of Four Mile Run and extend through Alexandria to the new Metro station.
"It makes perfect sense to me that the Arlington streetcar should terminate at a Metro, although there might be some raised eyebrows at the FTA," said Lovain, a registered lobbyist with Denny Miller Associates. "It’s a little unconventional, but I think it could work."
LOVAIN ESTIMATES the project would cost about $40 million, half of which could be picked up by the Federal Transit Administration under the Small Starts program. If Arlington were willing to kick in $5 million to $10 million, Lovain said, Alexandria might be willing to pay for the rest, estimated at $10 million to $15 million. Arlington would get to have its valuable streetcar line terminate at a Metro, and Alexandria would get federal funding for a pilot streetcar project.
"It sounds like a great idea, although I’m not prepared to support it right now," said Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey. "I think we are going to work something out. Whether this is it or not, I don’t know."
"It’s fair to say there’s competition. But there may also be a solution."
— Tim Lovain
For years, Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman has been one of the leading advocates of creating a regional streetcar system. Since Alexandria leaders learned that Arlington officials decided against participating in a joint study with Alexandria on Small Starts funding for the Crystal City Potomac Yard transit corridor, Zimmerman has declined to return calls for comment. His aide said that he would be declining to participate in this story after receiving written questions from Connection Newspapers.
"For Mr. Z, the Columbia Pike corridor is where his heart is," said Frank Shafroth, director of the Center for State and Local Government Leadership. "So it seems to be that he sacrificed one for the other."
ARLINGTON’S DECISION to opt out of an optional alternatives analysis on the Crystal City Potomac Yard transit corridor leaves Alexandria leaders scrambling to come up a new plan of action, and opinions are divided on the campaign trail about whether or not Lovain’s plan is the best course. Several council candidates applauded the proposal as a creative solution to the stalemate between the two neighboring jurisdictions. Former Councilman Justin Wilson said he supports Lovain’s plan in principle, although he wants to make sure that Alexandria is not distracted from finishing its own transit corridor to the Braddock Road Metro.
"Arlington and Alexandria are in a game of chicken right now," said Wilson. "Both sides are looking at the funding options."
Several Alexandria City leaders say that Arlington County acted in bad faith by inviting Alexandria to be part of an alternatives analysis that the county ultimately decided against pursuing. Now the ball is in the city’s court, and several are urging against moving forward with Lovain’s solution. Councilwoman Alicia Hughes, for example, says the city should abandon the concept of streetcars altogether — at least for now.
"We can’t afford it," said Hughes. "It is unrealistic, and to the extent that we try to make it reality, a tax bill that is more than unduly burdensome on Alexandria taxpayers, which is irresponsible."
WHEN ASKED about Lovain’s proposal, candidates in the Democratic primary for Alexandria City Council had a range of responses. Sean Holihan praised the idea as an "original solution" that encourages regional cooperation while Boyd Walker said he thinks the city should consider abandoning the Potomac Yard Metro in favor of investing in a streetcar system. Several of the candidates criticized Arlington leaders for opting out of the alternatives analysis for the Crystal City Potomac Yard transit corridor. Arlington County Board Chairwoman Mary Hynes declined to return calls for comment.
"I don’t think it’s fair for Arlington to wait until the last minute that they aren’t going to be participating in this," said John Taylor Chapman. "The original agreement was 50/50, and so I think we should hold out for Arlington to pay for half of this."
Melissa Feld said she’s not sure she would support Lovain’s proposal because she’s not sure Alexandria would be getting enough out of the bargain. Sammie Moshenberg said she wasn’t sure the community has had enough input into the process, pointing to other recent decisions that she says have lacked a clear mandate from citizens. Allison Silberberg said Lovain’s suggestion was a "win-win" solution that should be seriously considered in Arlington and Alexandria.
"I give Tim a lot of credit for coming up with this," said Silberberg. "If it works well, we can see if expanding streetcars is something we want to look at in other parts of the city."