Capital Debate

Capital Debate

Streetcar funding to take center stage during consideration of capital improvement plan.

For years, the debate over streetcars has been about planning and vision. Now members of the Arlington County Board are about to reach into the pockets of taxpayers, including the $300 million project in the capital improvement plan. That means the debate over the project is about to take center stage during the upcoming budget discussions, especially after County Manager Barbara Donnellan issues her budget proposal in February."Fixed rail attracts choice riders, those who would not ride a bus, and it also opens up more of Arlington to tourists," said Chairman Jay Fisette during the annual New Year’s Day organizational meeting. "Transportation and land-use planning have been integrated at every step. Such a thorough, broad-based decision-making process should not be easily disrespected or reversed."Fisette devoted a significant portion of his New Year’s Day speech to the issue, an indication that it will be at the top of his agenda for the coming year. But opinions are sharply divided about the wisdom of spending hundreds of millions of dollars. The chairman took aim at critics who call for a bus-rapid transit system along Columbia Pike instead of a streetcar system. He said that a BRT system requires a dedicated lane for a major portion of the route.

Whatever a system of modern and high-tech buses is called, critics of the streetcar say, the cost would be less than half of the $300 million to $400 million of installing a streetcar system."As I look around the country and see what's happening in other jurisdictions with streetcars, my alarm about this project only grows," said County Board member Libby Garvey. "I hope we never build a streetcar."

THE PUBLIC DEBATE about the streetcar system has become increasingly polarized in recent months, and opposing sides disagree on basic facts. One is the definition of what constitutes a bus-rapid transit system. Fisette says it requires a dedicated lane, although critics say that's not necessarily so. Columbia Pike won't have a dedicated lane for the streetcars either. And then there's the money. The federal government estimates the project is most likely to come in at $310 million, and it could be as much as $410 million. But county officials say the project will be closer to $249 million."I understand there are those who are not aware or who choose to ignore the lengthy public process in the finest Arlington tradition," said County Board member Walter Tejada. "This transit system, a joint project with Fairfax County that has been a decade in the making, will be a tremendous benefit to the entire Arlington community."Supporters of the streetcar initiative say the County Board has already voted on the issue, and that many of the county's recent land-use decisions were made predicated on the assumption that Columbia Pike would have a streetcar. Nevertheless, Garvey says she will oppose the plan during procedural votes and budget discussions. That includes the upcoming debate over the capital-improvement plan, which will feature the first major installment of money for the project."There are options that will work much better for a lot less money," said Garvey.

EVER SINCE the federal government declined to kick in $60 million for the streetcar system as part of the Small Starts program, opponents have been calling for a cost-benefit analysis. Like many aspects of the debate about the streetcars, various sides are in disagreement about whether or not a cost-benefit analysis has even been conducted. Supporters say all the necessary studies have been conducted and that calls for a cost-benefit analysis are just a veiled effort to delay and obstruct.

"Without the additional transit capacity, motor-vehicle gridlock will make these neighborhoods far less livable," said Mary Hynes. "The corridor's businesses will be less viable, and Arlington's economy will suffer as a result.”Opponents say the study supporters point to as a cost-benefit analysis is actually a return-on-investment study that was conducted as part of the failed bid for federal money. They say the county has never produced a side-by-side analysis showing economic development benefits of a bus-rapid transit system or an articulated bus system compared to a streetcar line. Now that county officials are putting together a new funding plan for the system, opponents say, the time is right to compare the two systems so Arlington residents have a more complete picture.“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.”Meanwhile, one of the streetcar's leading advocates, County Board member Chris Zimmerman is stepping down to take a job at Smart Growth American. The special election to replace him features two candidates who support the streetcar system, Alan Howze and Peter Fallon. It also features two candidates who are critical of it, John Vihstadt and Cord Thomas.