Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


Arlingtonians are still a bit sore from the fight over the cancelled streetcar.

You could tell last week when county manager Mark Schwartz released first details of a new plan for easing clogged traffic along Columbia Pike—an approach called “premium bus service.”

While too preliminary for cost estimates, the plan would upgrade the current system to make buses faster, easier to hop on and clearer on destinations and arrival times.

Peter Rousselot, the force behind the anti-streetcar Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, told me his group “is not around and will not be taking a position.” Streetcar supporter Takis Karantonis announced he is leaving as leader of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization.

My inquiries to board members and transit specialists suggested coming disputatiousness.

“We’ve not voted on this, but I believe the board is willing to spend money on premium bus transit on the Pike and feels some urgency to getting much improved transit up and running quickly,” said board chairman Libby Garvey. Citing lower costs than the streetcar and greater flexibility and regional connectivity, Garvey said some experts recently refuted the belief that successful bus rapid transit in other cities requires a dedicated traffic lane.

Streetcar slayer John Vihstadt is excited about the plan’s efficiencies, saying it “also has the potential to give further momentum to the already robust commercial and residential Pike redevelopment.” Jay Fisette worries that the will to invest in premium buses will flag.

New board member Christian Dorsey called the plan, while not a “game-changer, an opportunity to think comprehensively about county transit. I don’t think this is going to be everything we can do, but it’s a strong down payment.” Some streetcar opponents, Dorsey added, simply didn’t want to spend money on things that didn’t affect them. But “the majority recognized a need to improve the transit network to meet current and future needs, not with a fanciful gold-plated idea, but one grounded in practical reality.”

The other board freshman, Katie Cristol, said the staff plan reflects the board’s “impatience” to satisfy “homeowners along the Pike eager to see some action. The appetite might be there” to spend enough to achieve something and “still be responsible,” she said.

Transit specialists are ambivalent. Bob Dunphy, emeritus fellow of the Urban Land Institute, likes the “focus on travelers rather than technology.” Users value speed getting onboard and shortened wait times, he said, key performance measures that Garvey called for.

Sam Zimmerman, a consultant retired from the Federal Transit Administration, blessed the plan but said it lacked key ingredients. “It should be an integrated, branded system” with a unique name, design and graphics,” he said. Zimmerman recommends one express route and another serving all stops. Critics might be concerned about costs, he added, “but the initial capital or operating maintenance would be modest.”

Less enthused is John Snyder, chair of StreetcarNow.org. “I don’t see anything new here. These are all features identified for improved bus service to go along with the streetcar” in previous plans, he said. Though there are good features, “they don’t get at the main reason streetcars were chosen to provide service along with buses—to substantially increase transit capacity on the Pike, to keep up with the substantial new development the board has already approved,” Snyder said. “We can’t just keep jamming more cars into the Pike neighborhoods.”

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The official numbers on Arlington’s response to Snowzilla: Using 254 pieces of equipment, snow removal crews worked continuous 12-hour shifts for more than 150 hours after the Jan. 22-24 blizzard.

Crews finished all initial passes of residential streets as of Wednesday at 5 p.m., the county tells me, though some would take that with a grain of rock salt.

Applying some 4,500 tons of salt, a spokeswoman said, crews plowed 2.37 million cubic yards, “which can fit 47 football fields with 30 feet of snow.”