To the Editor:
The BRT study presented by Michael Pope (Nov. 6, 2013 edition) has serious and obvious flaws that make it useless to determine the right transit choices for Crystal City and Columbia Pike. First, it assumes that one type of transit should be chosen for all situations, rather than matching the system to the particular needs and challenges in the area under consideration. It does not much matter whether BRT or streetcars are the right solution in some other city; what matters is what is right for Arlington.
Second, the study focuses exclusively on promoting development in the form of new construction. Other important goals, like supporting new and existing businesses serving residential areas, and improving quality of life in those residential areas, are ignored. Bus service has not given a boost to Columbia Pike businesses for the last 50 years. Calling it BRT won’t change that. And notwithstanding good bus service, the Pike is the most auto-dependent corridor in Arlington. Streetcars on the Pike are intended to change that.
The study cited by Mr. Pope ignores these goals, dismissing support for existing development as irrelevant to the study. But the quality of life and survival and quality of local businesses are prime issues for Arlington. So is preservation of affordable housing, which is to be done by substantially increasing the amount of density allowed as an incentive for preservation. The buses-only alternatives pushed by BRT advocates will not carry the new transit ridership needed to make the Pike Neighborhoods Plan work, so those options are not viable. We can’t add 14,000 new apartments to the Pike without upgrading transit service.
The study is also fundamentally flawed in the data it uses to compare the “bang for the buck” of transit choices. It is faulty on both the “bucks” and the “bang.” The report does not provide background data for all the projects it discusses, but for its favorite project, the Cleveland Healthline, the “analysis” omitted more than 75 percent of the “bucks” invested by Cleveland in the Euclid Avenue Healthline BRT project. The authors only include the costs of the stations (similar to the real cost of the much-derided new Columbia Pike BRT station) and the buses. They don’t include rebuilding the streets with reinforced concrete, which is necessary, since the heavy BRT vehicles will tear up typical conventional streets, as buses are doing to Columbia Pike today. They also exclude other street improvements, concluding, without basis, that those improvements have nothing to do with attracting development to Euclid Avenue.
Comparing the real cost of Cleveland’s BRT line with Arlington’s streetcar plans, with cost escalation to the same time frame, and hefty contingencies demanded by the federal transit officials, the $200 million real cost of Cleveland’s project gets closer to the $250 million to $310 million cost projection for the Columbia Pike streetcar segment. And the study mentions, but does not include in its analysis, a whole host of development incentives offered to potential developers along Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue. Assuming that these development enticements have nothing to do with enticing development does not make a lot of sense. In sum, if you only show about 20 percent of real costs, yes, an alternative will look cheaper.
The study is wrong on the “bang” too. It assumes that all new construction along Euclid Avenue is due to the BRT project. It assumes that the other incentives mentioned above don’t exist, and also, for example, that the only reason that the Cleveland Clinic expanded right next to its existing buildings is the new BRT line. Same for expansion of Cleveland State University, and other new publicly funded projects targeted to revitalize the area. While the BRT line may support those projects, concluding the BRT line caused them is a stretch, to say the least. The study also ignores evidence that property values in some areas along the line actually declined.
So it is pretty clear that the study understates the costs and the overstates the benefits of one potential transit choice, and ignores the reasons Arlington is moving forward with a better choice for Arlington: streetcars.