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Arlington Streetcar: Desire or Disaster?

County residents are divided on the value of installing streetcars on Columbia Pike.

A capacity crowd fills Kenmore Middle School for a contentious forum on the proposed Arlington Streetcar.

A capacity crowd fills Kenmore Middle School for a contentious forum on the proposed Arlington Streetcar. Photo by Michael Lee Pope.

The $250 million Arlington streetcar is moving full speed ahead, with federal officials on the verge of announcing whether or not the project will be partially funded by Uncle Sam. But many people in Arlington want to derail the project before it reaches its destination, including newly elected County Board member Libby Garvey. She says a bus-rapid transit system would give Arlington County all the benefits of a streetcar system at 20 percent of the price.

“In fact, it can do it better,” said Garvey. “When you do not have a dedicated lane, as on Columbia Pike, and there's an accident on the tracks or something happens in a lane of traffic, the whole streetcar system comes to a stop.”

County Board member Chris Zimmerman disagrees that Arlington would be able to get all the benefits of a streetcar line at 20 percent of the cost. When asked about Garvey's critique, Zimmerman said Cleveland's HealthLine bus-rapid transit system cost $200 million to build, and it has dedicated lanes - something that would not be possible on Columbia Pike.

“The impact, the real payment for these investments, is in the real estate, which is where we derive most of our revenue,” said Zimmerman. “And the impact on the real estate is tremendous.”

OPPONENTS OF STREETCARS say the project would divert money and resources from other spending priorities, most notably affordable housing. One of the chief concerns raised by many who oppose streetcars is the process County Board members have taken in recent months, including a contentious vote late last year that created guidelines for public-private transportation projects. During a heated public hearing on the issue, many people raised concerns that the process is deeply flawed - a concern that lingers now that county officials are on the verge of entering into a new public-private partnership for the streetcar system.

“One of the biggest flaws is that they can approve a multi-million dollar contract to construct the streetcar with no competitive bidding,” said Peter Rousselot, former chairman of the Arlington Democratic Committee who is now with a group known as Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. “I think that's a tremendous mistake in light of the experiences in other parts of the state.”

Rousselot pointed to a study released last year by the Southern Environmental Law Center criticizing Virginia's Public Private Transportation Act, which the center said put profits ahead of sound transportation planning. Supporters of Arlington's efforts to enter into a public-private partnership to construct a streetcar line along Columbia Pike say streetcars will attract riders who would never think of riding a bus.

“Everywhere you put in a streetcar line you get an increase in ridership,” said Randy Swart is a spokesman for Streetcar Now. “We are expecting a 40 percent increase in ridership if we can get the streetcar over buses of any kind.”

COUNTY OFFICIALS say the deal has already been done, and years of land-use planning decision have already been made with the expectation that a trolley line will be constructed along Columbia Pike. Critics say it's never too late to undo bad planning decisions, and that Arlington county government is flexible enough to craft a bus-rapid transit system in place of a streetcar line.

“I think the trolley is an incredible waste of money, and it's going to be bad transit for Columbia Pike,” said John Antonelli, one of the leading opponents of the system. “A bus-rapid transit system allows the vehicles to change routes on a whim if something happens like a fire or road construction. That can't happen with a trolley.”

County staff and four of the five elected county board members said the streetcar is needed along Columbia Pike because it can carry about twice as many passengers as a bus. Population estimates show 14,000 new apartments and condominiums will be built along the corridor in the next two decades. Supporters say streetcars will be needed to handle that kind of capacity, which they say cannot be handed by a bus-rapid transit system.

“Streetcars will encourage more development along Columbia Pike,” said John Kirkpatrick, a member of Streetcar Now. “Arlington County hasn't paid much attention to Columbia Pike because they've focused all their attention on Rosslyn and Ballston. This is the turn for south Arlington to have some attention.”