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Arlington streetcars fail the cost-benefit test

Good government requires decisions based on the best and most current information. Now would be a good time for Arlington to pause and reconsider the costs and benefits of streetcars on Columbia Pike based on new information. We’ve learned that federal funds for the project have been denied; that a long-planned bus-and-streetcar “super stop,” which cost $1 million, doesn’t actually shelter riders; and that neighboring jurisdictions are considering modern buses instead of streetcars.

The members of the Arlington County Board decided on a streetcar years ago; I joined that board in March 2012 after 15 years on the school board. Ever since, I’ve studied the latest available information on the streetcar plan, as well as possible alternatives. I’ve concluded that streetcars on Columbia Pike are not a good investment for anyone.

Many of the common arguments in favor of the streetcar simply don’t hold up anymore, if they ever did.

Some say a streetcar system will improve transit on Columbia Pike. It won’t. In reality, the plan will augment the current bus system with 10 streetcars that would share the road with cars and buses. These streetcars will not be able to travel faster than the buses in front of them. In fact, they will sometimes be slower; if another vehicle blocks the way forward, buses can maneuver around but streetcars are stuck. Nor would the streetcar system offer much convenience for the many people who want to go to the Pentagon, downtown D.C. or into Fairfax and Alexandria. They would have to transfer.

Some advocate for streetcars as a way to bring equity to South Arlington, which has not benefited from Metro the way the northern part of the county has. Well, I’ve lived in South Arlington since 1977, and I have always championed equity. Streetcars are not equity. They would make traffic worse and, because they are overpriced, would siphon resources away from other important needs.

Some say that only streetcars can stimulate desired development. Not so. Last July, the Government Accountability Office reported that modern buses can stimulate development just as well as streetcars can. Some cities, like Cleveland, have experienced better development along bus rapid transit lines than has been experienced around the best streetcar system.

Some say we need the revenue generated by new development to be able to preserve affordable housing and the diversity of neighborhoods. Yes, but there will be a lot less money available if huge amounts of it must be used to pay for transit. A streetcar system costing $250 million to build and $4.5 million a year to operate would leave little to support other needed initiatives — especially if the cost of building and running the system increases dramatically above projections, as happens with many rail projects.

Some say streetcars have a proven track record of success. Not true. The finances of Portland, Ore., and Tampa are strained today by decreasing ridership and ballooning annual operating costs for their streetcars.

Some say only the streetcar can provide needed capacity. Not true. The best U.S. streetcars carry a fraction of the number of riders carried by the highest-capacity U.S. bus routes, even where the buses do not have dedicated lanes.

The high cost and low benefit of streetcars persuaded Montgomery County and Alexandria to pause long-planned streetcar projects and look at modern bus transit. Arlington, too, needs to perform a hard-headed cost-benefit analysis before moving forward.

The writer is a member of the Arlington County Board.

 
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