Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


Arlington desires a streetcar. Perhaps a fleet of 10 to 14 of them, according to the County Board, many real estate folks and scads of residents who favor revitalizing the aged but newly hip Columbia Pike corridor.

Streetcars have loomed in Arlington’s vision for a decade. But nowadays smart-growth enthusiasts believe that by 2016, Arlington can mimic such Shangri-Las as Portland (Ore.), Seattle, Tampa and Little Rock in outfitting thoroughfares with those charming, high-capacity, environmentally clean, convenient and frequent-stopping throwbacks to a quainter transport era.

The planning map shows nearly five miles of electrified streetcar track that would fan out from the Pentagon City Metro, one following the Pike out to Fairfax’s Skyline Towers, the other wending through Crystal City to help humanize that sterile but tax-rich office kingdom. The spiffy-looking cars tracked on inlaid rails would stop mostly at right-side curbs, though some would halt on medians. Metro SmartTrip cards would be accepted, and most current bus routes would continue.

But recently, as the age of austerity dawned, Arlington’s $140 million-plus plan has come under fire. Some slow-news-day editorialists at the Examiner charged planners with withholding secret studies showing that streetcars will snarl traffic. County Transit Bureau chief Stephen Del Giudice issued a rebuttal describing a spate of public meetings and the planned adjustments to the traffic-lane widths and left-turn rules.

The Washington Post opined that what it sees as a noble but badly timed endeavor rests on an unhealthy hope for federal funding under the Small Starts legislation authored by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. That fund’s future lies with the gods of the fisc.

All this naysaying is frustrating to County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman. “In Arlington, we don’t have a budget crisis, so there’s really nothing” to this story, he told me. A project as far-reaching as a streetcar network “takes a long time to plan and develop-Metro took more years to plan than it did to build.” The long-term nature of the commitment is understood by supporters of streetcars who form the overwhelming majority at hearings, Zimmerman says.

True, if the federal money dries up, the board “would have to find some other way” to fund what is primarily a locally funded gig. But he is optimistic that Arlington’s proposals “would score very high and compete well under Transportation Department rules that the Obama administration has made more attractive.”

Arlington has the lowest rates of unemployment and vacant office space of any area jurisdiction, Zimmerman says. That success was built on “intelligent investments made years ago to stimulate private investment and sustain profitability of the private sector.”

All indicators show the investment in streetcars would bring a return because the surrounding real estate will rise in value, Zimmerman says, “not because of what we’re spending today but because of what we’ll spend over many years.” Metro was built during recessions, he adds. “Did that mean we should have stopped it?”

Not all beefs against streetcars come from anti-government conservatives. This emblematic sample of Arlington planning does not sit well with Green Party County Board candidate Audrey Clement. She calls the streetcar deal an “unneeded extravagance” that could drive up real estate prices on Columbia Pike and threaten its stock of affordable housing.

The move to ring in the streetcars continues apace. But I suspect the clang-clang-clang of debate will continue.


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com