Arlington’s Streetcar Fighters

(Ben Claassen III/For Express)
(Ben Claassen III/For Express)

Nothing attracts detractors like a public meeting. So when I showed up at a District Department of Transportation event in November — the first in a series discussing streetcar plans for the north-south corridor — I was ready to jot down any signs of debate. I shouldn’t have bothered to bring a pen.

As we headed out, a woman walking near me offered me the harshest comment I heard all night: “We already have such great public transportation around here, so I’m not sure we need it.”

It’s not that everyone in the District is gung-ho for streetcars. But the loudest complaint seems to be that they haven’t arrived fast enough. And with that first section of track on the verge of opening on H Street NE, the only real question is where the network will head next.

The streetcar debate is much more heated in Arlington, where the issue of whether to go ahead with a route planned for Columbia Pike looks like it will be a central factor in the upcoming election for the County Board. Over the past year, citizen groups have sprung up on either side of the fight: Arlington Streetcar Now and Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit.

Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit’s Bill Vincent, 49, argues that the millions that will be needed for the project could be better spent elsewhere. Vincent, who’s lived in the county for 20 years, would rather see improvements in overall transportation services and better connections to neighboring jurisdictions. Besides, there are lower-cost solutions for the Pike, adds Vincent, a consultant who formerly ran a nonprofit focused on bus rapid transit.

“A lot can be done to make the buses faster, higher capacity and more attractive to riders,” Vincent says. “If buses can no longer handle demand, then we can talk about streetcars.”

That doesn’t sound like a good deal to Chris Slatt, 33, of Arlington Streetcar Now. The computer programmer bought a house on Columbia Pike in 2008 because of the streetcar plans.

“I talk to a lot of people like me who are excited about a better experience than a bus, and a more reliable schedule,” says Slatt, who’s looking forward to using the streetcar to patronize businesses along the Pike that will, in turn, boost Arlington’s tax base. “Some people just don’t get that a streetcar costs money, but it makes money, too.”

Slatt also questions whether bus service can be improved without a dedicated lane, which won’t be feasible.

Both groups are focused on educating the public, so Arlington residents can expect to hear more debate in the coming months. In the District, meanwhile, the only people going back and forth on streetcars will be the ones riding them.

Express Sunday

The transportation innovation that’s set to alter the way we move is the same one that ruled D.C. and its suburbs a century ago: the streetcar. Check out the plans to get us back on track in Express Sunday and at readexpress.com.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFit columnists and the Fit editor for Express.
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Vicky Hallett | January 17