By Stewart Schwartz
This past week, the region was rocked with the news that the Arlington County Board decided to halt the proposed Crystal City to Bailey’s Crossroads streetcar project in the wake of the election of anti-streetcar candidate John Vihstadt. There were always pros and cons regarding the streetcar upon which reasonable people could disagree. Unfortunately, the environment of the political campaign wasn’t especially conducive to in-depth discussion of the context for the streetcar and the larger land use and transportation choices facing Arlington and the region.
It’s a discussion we need to have so that we can better understand why major new investments in transit infrastructure and in walkable, transit-oriented communities are so important. For without these investments we cannot handle the growth that’s coming to our region.
Arlington County had in fact engaged the communities along Columbia Pike for many years in an extended dialogue involving dozens of community meetings, and innumerable land use, transportation and housing studies, leading to the judgment that an integrated approach to land use, affordable housing, and enhanced transit offered the best approach. The anticipation of the streetcar investment and the strong community vision have already encouraged exciting mixed-use redevelopment of strip shopping centers and parking lots.
One particular driver of the Columbia Pike Plan and the decision to select the streetcar was the ongoing loss of market-rate affordable housing as landlords upgrade garden apartments for lease at higher rents to meet the booming demand to live closer to jobs in the core of the region. To greatly simplify, the Columbia Pike Plan is a three-legged stool where: (1) density bonuses and the value created by the streetcar investment create the incentive to provide (2) long-term committed affordable housing with no net loss of affordable units, while (3) the increased density requires expanded transit capacity.
Central to the decision to select the streetcar to provide that transit capacity was the fact that the Virginia Department of Transportation would not agree to allow for the conversion of a lane of traffic into a dedicated transit lane. In the absence of a dedicated lane, the studies estimated that it would not be possible to meet transit ridership demand with enhanced bus service. If transit vehicles had to travel in mixed-traffic then the streetcars offered greater carrying capacity and a smoother trip than articulated buses.
Citing costs and operational concerns, the streetcar opponents insisted that Bus Rapid Transit would serve the corridor as effectively and at lower costs. However, according to experts on BRT service at Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, it’s not possible to have true and effective BRT in the absence of dedicated lanes.
With the halt to the streetcar project, the anti-streetcar advocates will have an obligation to help solve the puzzle of Columbia Pike. Specifically, how to provide enhanced transit service in the absence of dedicated lanes, how to protect and expand affordable housing, and how to revitalize the corridor to support the economy of Arlington County. Hopefully, another round of dialogue outside the heat of politics can arrive at a new consensus. At the same time, there can be a renewed effort to seek approval from VDOT to convert one lane in each direction to a dedicated transit lane, which would allow for a true Bus Rapid Transit system.
Arlington should also consider a county-wide dialogue about the future. With growth coming to the county, where and how should the county develop while managing traffic, increasing transportation choices, expanding housing affordability, and meeting sustainability goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing stormwater runoff, and providing great parks and public spaces?
Boiled down to its basics, our region and each locality stand between two options –continue auto-dependent growth and try to expand highways and arterial roads to support that growth, or invest to a much greater extent in transit and transit-oriented communities with a focus on redevelopment of commercial corridors.
Unfortunately it is far easier – and too often treated as inevitable – to keep incrementally widening roads and adding interchanges in dozens of projects, than it is to re-plan and retrofit suburban corridors with dedicated-lane transit and mixed-use development. Yet the former degrades neighborhoods and our environment and ultimately fails because it increases the amount of driving, while the latter would reduce the amount that people have to drive, protects single-family home neighborhoods, and creates a more balanced and functional transportation system. Mixed-use, walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented communities are certainly much in demand as evidenced by the boom in Falls Church, Arlington, Alexandria, and other transit-friendly communities.
While the halt to the streetcar project following years of community dialogue and study is certainly disappointing, we should seize the opportunity for renewed dialogue about where and how we should grow in Arlington and in the region as a whole.