The overheated Arlington streetcar debate may finally cool to manageable temperatures.
The county board, in the wee hours of July 24 with only obsessives and paid officials awake to witness it, voted 4-0 (newcomer Libby Garvey abstained) to greenlight the Columbia Pike trolley.
The $110 million investment in economical quaintness to lure commuters from their cars is a gamble. But project boosters are confident in a payoff—for a reason I believe has drawn scant attention.
Critics have voiced multiple worries about the 10-year-old dream of Arlington and Fairfax planners for a revival of the streetcars that last rolled through Northern Virginia in the 1940s. They’ve cited high investment costs, new congestion, threats to bicycle safety and a developer’s gentrification bonanza.
“It’s a complicated subject where you have a pro-trolley cult on one side and tea-party type opponents on the other,” Lew Gulick, a retired newsman who has tracked the issue, told me.
He is puzzled by the county’s choice of the pricier streetcar over the cheaper “articulated” bus, noting that while streetcars may hold more passengers (115), they seat only 29, versus 60 seats on the big buses that hold 94. The official survey shows that either streetcars or modern buses can accommodate projected ridership needs of the Pike,” Gulick says. “But riders will prefer to stand in streetcars rather than sit in buses.”
The undersung reason for the officials’ pro-streetcar proclivities is the uncomfortable fact that buses must battle stigma. Though few admit it, many car-dependent middle and upper-class citizens look down on bus transit as a less-than-convenient province of the working class.
A June article by Amanda Hess on the Atlantic magazine’s “Cities” website is titled, “Race, Class, and the Stigma of Riding the Bus in America.” It examines cultural tensions over funding public transport in Los Angeles and Atlanta, where the MARTA subway built in the 1970s was quietly mocked as “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”
In Arlington, the issue comes up obliquely. “Streetcars will attract the widest variety of passengers,” Linda Dye, who has lived near Columbia Pike for decades, told the Sun-Gazette. “People who won’t ride a bus will ride a streetcar.”
County staff and elected officials pressed their case in a July 21 report citing higher-than-projected boosts in transit ridership after modern streetcars were introduced in Portland, Ore., Phoenix, Ariz., and Hampton Roads, Va., where the predicted 2,900 weekday trips on the year-old system is now averaging 5,000-plus. A local 2009 survey found that 64 percent of Columbia Pike residents never use the bus and that the bus system there is “reaching its peak.”
Once the streetcar is live and moving commuters from Skyline at Bailey’s Crossroads to Pentagon City, the county figures, it will deter 3,000 vehicles a day from the Pike and attract $291 million in new tax revenue over 30 years.
Board chairman Mary Hynes told me she doesn’t know “why people don’t take the bus. But the reality is, what has happened in every place where streetcars have come in is that ridership has gone up,” she said. “As a policymaker, you’re concerned about removing more cars, so you look for the mode most likely to give the greatest boost in ridership, reduce congestion and move more people efficiently.”
If that proves true in Arlington, perhaps board members will celebrate with a Rice-a-Roni dinner.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org