Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The clang-clang-clang of Arlington’s streetcar debate issue won’t cease. Last week, after the county board had mapped out debate on other issues, a new group of citizen activists announced formation of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit.

The ringleader is Peter Rousselot, a retired attorney with a transportation specialty who speaks for many in Arlington who chafe at the prospect—now unfolding— of spending possibly $300 million on trolleys to glide along Columbia Pike to ease gridlock and attract economic development.

It’s a plea to slow down and rethink.

While the county awaits a federal grant and funding via a commercial tax and fares, the group wants a “truly independent” cost-benefit analysis. Members favor a modern bus rapid transit system (fancier, more commodious buses) costing a third of the streetcar’s price. They want a voter referendum.

“Existing law requires localities like Arlington to hold referendums on capital projects when certain types of debt financing are proposed to pay for the project,” Rousselot told me. “Whether a referendum will occur would become relevant if the board ultimately decides to move forward to build the streetcar despite strong community opposition.”

In October, he joined with Arlingtonian transportation policy heavyweights Robert Dunphy and Sam Zimmerman in releasing a data-packed paper challenging the conclusions of the sophisticated studies assembled by specialists with Arlington, Fairfax and Metro. Both camps cite experiences in other cities with streetcars and big buses.

Though Rousselot is an active Democrat, the streetcar plan scrambles politics. There’s opposition from Republicans, the Green Party and a chorus of onlookers worried about overspending.

This “streetcar was conceived many years ago in a rosier economy,” Rousselot says. “Since then, the price tag has soared.”

The board member who shares the activists’ concerns is Libby Garvey. Though she doesn’t rule out the streetcar, she calls the new group“an outstanding example of the Arlington Way at work, a great example of informed and involved citizens engaging with their community and elected officials. This is exactly the time to examine carefully what kind of vehicle to use,” Garvey told me.

The rest of the board is sticking with the vision. “The streetcar, and its higher carrying capacity, is the basis for the land use plans approved in these corridors, and will contribute greatly to the quality of life of the residents and businesses,” Jay Fisette told me. The suggested big-bus “alternative requires a dedicated lane, which is not even possible on Columbia Pike. I recognize the need to further educate and engage on this issue – though we can’t ignore the extensive community process that began 10-plus years ago.”

Mary Hynes says she’s puzzled that opponents have reopened debate now. “Looking at what’s actually coming our way on the Pike’s needs, I’m convinced that streetcar is the right long-term vision,” she says.

There are logistical advantages to streetcars, which hold 150 riders versus fewer than 100 for the big buses. Trolleys every 10 minutes can be supplemented with buses during rush hour, Hynes adds, with a projected doubling the number of daily rider trips on the Pike. “Physically, you can’t squeeze more buses there now,” she says.

“Experience elsewhere says rails in the ground are a different level of commitment” in the eyes of business. That’s why Pike property owners favor it, she says. “If we don’t do the streetcar, we will have gridlock.”


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