Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


 Lots of passion being stirred by the Arlington-Fairfax proposal to add streetcars to traffic-clogged Columbia Pike.

I got a taste by attending the June 7 public forum presenting a new report assessing the three chief alternatives in this transportation conundrum.

Fittingly, the event was held at the Goodwin House retirement community, located precisely on the proposed streetcar route that would connect Pentagon City Metro with Route 7’s Skyline Towers by way of points along the Pike.

Goodwin House is home to many longtime Arlington political activists, who, to their dismay, may no longer vote in the old hometown because their domicile is now in Fairfax. But it’s a shared issue.

The vision of streetcars in Arlington goes deeper than a yearning for quaint historic charm. The goal is to reduce the number of cars by providing convenient transit for shopping and restauranting while also spurring job-creating development.

That’s how it was expressed by the Columbia Pike Transit Initiative Policy Committee, which includes planners from Arlington, Fairfax and Metro, along with a frighteningly well-prepared team of consultants.

Their report weighs three choices. The cheapest is simply enhancing current bus service by adding vehicles; the second is purchasing “articulated,” or long, bendable buses; the third, and priciest, is a fleet of streetcars, at a tab of up to $261million, or a five times the cost of new buses.

Note the streetcar option would be paid for as follows: 30 percent from a federal grant, 14 percent from Virginia, and 56 percent from a county commercial real estate tax— not from homeowner taxes.

Streetcars hold more passengers (115, versus 94 for articulated buses and 63 for current buses). Because they boast multiple entrances, there’s less wait time for boarding (aided by pre-paid fares), which moves things along. Streetcars are powered by less-polluting electricity using overhead lines (less polluting in Arlington, but not in coal country). Their tracks are at street grade, meaning cars can continue to drive over them.

One booster of that option was from Vornado Realty Trust, owners of high-rises at Skyline, where a population of 30,000 would just love to streetcar it to Metro, he said.

Several in the audience of some 100 voiced skepticism, among them Arlington Green Party candidate Audrey Clement and backer James Hurysz. They argued against “profligate spending.” They warned that development on the Pike would gentrify it. They noted that the projected gain in transit riders using streetcars is only 26,200 by 2016, not much higher than the 25,100 with articulated buses. They demanded a referendum. They warned of threats to bicyclists.

Committee members had ready answers. Arlington’s transit bureau chief Steve Del Giudice said bicycles are not safe on the Pike.

A downside for history lovers is the need to move, at least temporarily, one of the boundary stones marking the original 1792 border of the District of Columbia. It’s smack in the median of the Jefferson St. route.

The schedule calls for a comment period ending June 21, and in July both county boards vote. If it’s streetcars, an application goes to the Federal Transit Administration this fall. Locals have been working with the feds, but one specialist told me a new regulation may redefine what counts as effective in increasing transit use.

And if federal appropriations shrink, Arlington’s streetcar vision may never get beyond its artists’ renderings. 


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