Arlington residents discuss density, streetcar plans

Arlington County’s effort to remake the Columbia Pike corridor inched forward at the speed of its chronically crowded buses Monday night as the County Board heard from scores of residents about a new land-use and housing plan in the area.

More than 120 people turned up at the meeting to express their support for or concerns about increasing the density of their neighborhoods. Most vocal were residents of the Foxcroft Heights neighborhood, overlooking Arlington National Cemetery and adjacent to the high-rise Sheraton Hotel.

The proposal would allow taller structures on the outskirts of the small neighborhood. Some residents liked the plan, but others called for more time to discuss it.

“I have seen urban density take hold and engulf our small county in my lifetime. We’ve lost that small-town feeling,” said Donna Mullins, a 40-year resident.

“No one is going to die, Foxcroft Heights is not going to explode if we don’t do something tonight,” added Milagros Martinez.

By 10 p.m., the board had not voted on the housing plan or the more contentious streetcar proposal.

The controversial decision to support a 4.5-mile streetcar line from the Baileys Crossroads area of Fairfax County to the Pentagon City Metro station was made in 2006. But a new vote is required by the Federal Transit Administration, which wants to be sure the board considered other alternatives, such as putting in larger, more modern buses.

Arlington hopes the federal government will help pay $75 million, or about 30 percent of the streetcar cost. Another $35 million may come from Virginia transportation funds, and Arlington and Fairfax counties would divide the remaining 56 percent of the cost, with Fairfax paying 20 percent of that split, according to the Columbia Pike Transit Initiative. Fairfax is scheduled to vote on the issue next week.

The cost to Arlington of the streetcar alternative has risen to $199 million, according to the county’s capital improvements budget. It was estimated at $112 million last December. The capital costs are expected to come from taxes on local commercial property owners, but operating costs would be paid from the county’s general funds, provided by all property owners.

Articulated buses are significantly cheaper, at about $50 million, and, since they wouldn’t require as much construction, could be put in place faster. They could run on natural gas or less-polluting forms of fuel than diesel or gasoline.

Opponents also point to safety concerns because the streetcars would share Columbia Pike with regular traffic. Accidents or breakdowns would tie up traffic in that lane, and the tracks are slippery when wet and can be dangerous to bicyclists, opponents say.

But others say streetcars will attract people to mass transit, including some who wouldn’t take buses.

In an already congested area, more commercial and residential development is underway, and mass transit supporters, led by County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D), want to reduce reliance on single-occupancy vehicles.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, a 15-year-old Washington-based group, said in a letter to the County Board: “The streetcar is one leg in a three-part stool linking density, affordable housing, and transit. Higher density development is necessary as an incentive to preserve and expand committed affordable housing, while the streetcar incentivizes that development and while reducing the number of auto trips.”

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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