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Commentary: Arlington’s Streetcar Vision for Crystal City

— Growth always means more traffic and more headaches. Or does it?

Fact: traffic on many major Arlington streets is less than it was in 1970, even though our population has doubled in that time. This is a tremendous achievement, bringing more residents, more jobs, more housing, more visitors — and with them, more revenue and more services for our community — while actually reducing traffic on these streets.

How did we do it? What is the secret sauce?

The secret sauce is Arlington’s commitment to “smart growth” planning — our commitment to transit-oriented development (TOD) that keeps density along our transit corridors, while preserving neighborhoods. In fact, more than half of Arlington’s real property values are on just 11 percent of our land — our Metrorail corridors. It is a philosophy that is the backbone to Arlington’s success, the envy of many in the region and the nation.

In 2010, the Arlington County Board and the Arlington community used these lessons to create the Crystal City Sector plan, a key element of the bold vision for Arlington’s Route 1 corridor. Our plan transforms Crystal City to a more vibrant, walkable neighborhood. It also anticipates growth: 17,400 people live in Crystal City and Pentagon City today, but we estimate that by 2040, the two neighborhoods will have added a total of 8,500 residents and 35,500 jobs.

To support this vision, the Sector Plan calls for a new transit service, a streetcar. For a fraction of the cost of extending Metrorail, Arlington will be able to encourage high-quality, mixed use development, build community and increase transit use, all the while supporting the central business district and helping it mature into a vibrant, attractive, livable 24/7 neighborhood.

But we aren’t going it alone. After all, at 26 square miles, Arlington is the smallest, densest county in the nation — we need to be good neighbors! As we have in the past, we’re working with Alexandria and Fairfax to develop transit solutions that serve us all. The modern streetcar for Crystal City — a line that will initially connect Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard — is an important first step.

Eventually, this “Route 1” line will meet up in Pentagon City with the planned streetcar line on Columbia Pike, providing riders with a one-seat option to travel from Potomac Yard to the Skyline area in our partner jurisdiction, Fairfax County. We hope it may even stretch further south into Alexandria one day.

A modern streetcar system will be a vital part of a larger regional transportation network of Metrorail, VRE and local buses. This transit network offers options for tens of thousands of residents and workers to travel to and through Arlington and the Greater Metropolitan area — and keeps thousands of cars off the road. Beyond the transit benefits, a Northern Virginia regional streetcar system will knit together neighborhoods and jurisdictions, supporting expected development as well as job and population growth in each of our communities.

Without these strategic investments, our streets could become clogged with traffic, our quality of life could decline, and our robust economy could be at risk — the exact opposite of what we’ve achieved since the 1960s and what we know is possible when a community plans carefully. In short, we believe streetcars have great potential to help Arlington maintain — and build upon — the “smart growth” legacy that has been the hallmark of our success story.