Laying Out a Path To Renewal

Bus Stops along Columbia Pike
One of the proposed trolley stop is on Columbia Pike near the Walter Reed Drive intersection where this metrobus makes a stop. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

Arlington County officials are considering a plan to implement a trolley system to help transform Columbia Pike, one of the county's busiest and most run-down corridors, into a more vibrant streetscape.

As their model, officials are using Portland, Ore., where streetcar trolleys helped to revitalize a city center threatened by the loss of residents, businesses and capital.

Over time, the Portland transit remodeling proved a huge success, ushering in more than $2 billion in mixed-use development along the city's streetcar line and enhancing the city's vitality.

Now Arlington officials say they want a piece of that kind of action. They will consider a plan this year to implement a trolley system estimated to cost as much as $110 million to help remake Columbia Pike.

Streetcars "restored parts of Portland that were down and out and never coming back," said David R. DeCamp, president of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, a group that is spearheading the thoroughfare's ongoing makeover. "Using trolleys here could be a real benefit."

The benefit, planners say, would be twofold: attracting folks who perhaps don't consider themselves "bus people" to use a sleek mass-transit system and adding a crucial dimension to revitalization efforts by spurring development on the heavily traveled east-west corridor and giving the roadway more character.

Although bus service on the corridor was recently revamped and gets high marks for being both effective and the most-traveled bus service in the state, officials say buses can't compete with the special appeal of trolleys.

"The Columbia Pike initiative has been about transforming the roadway into a main street," said Arlington County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D). "It's about making it pedestrian-oriented and people-oriented . . . a place, not just a road people drive through. When you see what they've been able to do in a place like Portland, it reflects the kind of ideas people in Columbia Pike have been pursuing for their own main street. That's the biggest reason for the initiative. You can't get that just with buses."

Efforts to transform Columbia Pike have been continuing in earnest since 1998, mostly in the form of hundreds of community meetings to discuss the area's redevelopment. In 2003, the County Board approved a plan to redevelop Columbia Pike through a slate of guidelines that direct developers and builders to create a unified design for the 3 1/2 -mile corridor as it cuts through South Arlington.

Using Portland's streetcars as a blueprint, Arlington officials envision running what they call modern "light light rail" on tracks along a five- to six-mile stretch of the roadway.

So far, two potential routes have emerged in discussions. Planners with the revitalization project are recommending a five-mile line from Pentagon City and connecting with Columbia Pike at the Air Force memorial, now under construction at the Navy Annex. The trolley would then travel west on Columbia Pike and turn south on Jefferson Street. The route would end in the Skyline area in Fairfax County.

A six-mile route, which also is being considered, would end near Columbia Pike and Route 7 in the Baileys Crossroads area of Fairfax.

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