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Crystal City streetcar plans underway

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The District’s H Street streetcar gets a lot of buzz, much of it owing to the neighborhood’s ongoing redevelopment and proximity to downtown. The Purple Line, more than a decade in the making, is much scrutinized as plans move forward to build a 16-mile transit way between Bethesda and New Carrollton. And the Arlington-Fairfax Columbia Pike streetcar has generated noisy opposition from activists who prefer less-costly buses.

But there’s another streetcar project in the area that so far has quietly moved forward.

In what is now a high-rise, car-centric area, Arlington County is planning a 2.5-mile-long streetcar line along the Route 1 corridor between Crystal City and the Alexandria city limits. Planners hope the streetcar will help to create a walkable neighborhood with street-level retail, dense housing and offices.

It’s all part of a nascent regional network of light-rail projects, which combined with existing Metrorail, VRE commuter rail, buses, car- and bicycle-sharing and pedestrian-friendly paths, would remake the urban landscape into distinctive destinations.

The plan to build a streetcar line along Columbia Pike, from just over the Fairfax County line to Crystal City, has all the elements of the work done along Wilson and Clarendon boulevards a decade ago. Economic development, open space and the preservation of affordable housing share attention with the streetcar line.

Crystal City is a different community, however. It’s full of high-rises, but south of the area is the still-developing Potomac Yard, former site of a railroad switching yard. Developers already have plans for the area, and demographers predict major growth in both households and commercial space.

“There aren’t a whole lot of people who live in Crystal City right now,” said Mary Hynes, county board chairman. “And the Crystal City plan calls for a large increase in residents.” Hynes said that to keep pace with the projected growth in residents in the area, Crystal City will need a modern transit system.

“The long-term strategy has to be something more than buses, because buses just can’t carry enough people,” she said.

The Crystal City streetcar project is expected to cost $146 million to build. It will be paid for by the Arlington commercial real estate tax, which is set aside in the local Transportation Capital Fund. Officials are seeking state transportation funds to help keep the costs down.

Tax increment financing, a method in which officials rely on future increases in land value to pay for infrastructure improvements upfront, will also be used, based on a special district that has been set up for Crystal City, Potomac Yard and Pentagon City.

The estimate assumes that the Columbia Pike streetcar line will be built first, said Stephen Del Giudice, Arlington’s transit chief, because federal funds are expected to pay for the maintenance building for both lines.

The costs jumped by about $664,000 this month, after Alexandria city officials became alarmed when they learned that Arlington did not plan to apply for federal funds for the project. Alexandria said it would delay its participation to focus on getting the money for a new Metrorail station at the south end of Potomac Yard, and to reconsider whether a bus rapid-transit system could suffice.

Arlington also has the option of using general-obligation bonds to cover about $20 million of the cost, but that would require endorsement by a majority of county voters.

Hynes said she doesn’t expect that will be necessary, given the predictions of growth in the area.

“In Crystal City, there’s so much more density being added that it’s possible to pay for the streetcar with a tax increment financing district,” she said. “The reality is that Crystal City even now throws off something like one-third of all the county's revenue. It’s just phenomenal. . . . We’ve already had two new site plans [for major developments] there. There’s definitely interest, and more is coming.”

The Crystal City streetcar, which would wind its way adjacent to but not on the busy Route 1, is still in the planning stages, with an environmental assessment just started. Unlike the Columbia Pike streetcars, which will share a traffic lane with cars, buses, trucks, bicyclists and others, the Crystal City project has separate dedicated lanes. If the assessment is completed by next summer, engineering work will start. Final design is anticipated in mid-2014, construction would start by 2016 and the line would start running by 2019.

Hynes, who hands over the chairmanship of the Arlington County Board on Tuesday, noted that the planning for what happens in Crystal City pre-dated her five-year tenure. But she compared the current work with the long-term planning that previous generations of Arlington leaders did when Metrorail was being built and earlier, when state and federal officials wanted to turn the inner suburb into a web of highways feeding distant commuters to the District.

“These [streetcars] are investments,” she said. “They’re not just expenses, they’re investments in quality of place, they are investments in air quality, they’re investments in quality of life for our residents. These are prudent investments that keep the community humming.”

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