Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

It was a bumpy week for the visionaries of a revitalized Columbia Pike.

Arlington got mocked by national media for spending $1 million on the first in a series of fancified bus stops that don’t provide decent shelter (the project was then put on hold). News broke that the Federal Transit Administration had decided against including Arlington’s streetcar proposal among this year’s grants.

And on Wednesday the chief critic of the $250 million streetcar plan held his own at the Arlington Committee of 100 debate, dramatizing to the 100-plus in attendance that the trolley is one maddeningly divisive issue.

Moderated civilly by Sun-Gazette managing editor Scott McCaffrey, the debate unearthed a hint of a north-south split in the county on top of the ongoing philosophical clash between long-range planners and voters terrified of debt and spending.

All onboard for the streetcar was David DeCamp, chairman of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and supporter of Arlington Streetcar Now. The “time is ripe for a big idea” of replicating, on the aging and gridlocked Pike, “the Arlington Miracle” of the high-functioning Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, he said. Following 10 years and 50 meetings, his Plan A of new building requires Plan B of ambitious transport like “a heart needs lungs.”

Pike restaurant owners say they’re “dying for more wallets.”Augmenting existing buses with a trolley that arrives every six minutes, DeCamp said, would help commit developers to preserving an equivalent of the present 6,200 units of nearby affordable housing. As a business owner, he would help pay Arlington’s $105 million share of the streetcar through the capital transportation tax.

Pressing the county to “take a pause” was transportation attorney Peter Rousselot, leader of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. Its 350 members “have no vested financial interest” in the issue, he said. The streetcar was “conceived in rosier economic times, and its price tag has soared,” he said. There’s never been an independent cost-benefit analysis, and a better option, at five times less in cost, he added, would be a bus rapid transit system like that in Cleveland.

It is “stylish, sleek, and modern and would attract riders,” Rousselot said, with greater flexibility for going, for example, to the Pentagon. Transit is not necessary for development, Rousselot added; look at Shirlington.

The streetcar advocate cited their popularity in Portland, Ore., calling them environmentally clean (endorsed by the Sierra Club) and more apt to lure so-called “choice riders” out of their cars. Young Millennials, he said, want “a town-sized vision.” Riders prefer transit, DeCamp said, saying the federal General Services Administration when leasing gives points for access to transit but not for having a bus stop.

His opponent challenged the assertion that the commercial tax won’t impact the general budget, saying businesses will feel “piled on” and may escape to reconfigured Tysons Corner. Columbia Pike’s current renters, Rousselot added, will be driven away during the building phase.

The debaters could not agree on whether the bus approach requires a dedicated lane—for which the Pike has no space.

From the audience, a South Arlington resident said, “Transit dollars should be spread out” because South Arlingtonians for years have paid taxes for Metro, which “disproportionately contributes benefits” for the north.

“I don’t think it’s constructive to practice the politics of regional resentment,” Rousselot replied.

The county board, meanwhile, vows to roll with the streetcar.