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.
The idea of using trolleys on Columbia Pike has been kicked around for years, but with revitalization efforts in high gear, officials with the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization and the county decided it was time to see whether the idea would fly with planners.
Last week the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's planning and development committee voted unanimously to recommend the proposal to its full board. If approved, the plan will be forwarded to the Arlington County Board and Fairfax Board of Supervisors. The boards could take up the issue as early as March, deciding whether they want to pursue preliminary engineering and financing options.
Planners say that financing could come from a variety of sources, including an incremental increase in the tax rate for property along the corridor, a parking revenue bond, rental car tax or federal transportation funds.
"The trick is to pay for it," said the revitalization panel's DeCamp. "But I'm convinced it can be done."
Under the proposal, the trolleys -- which could be powered either from overhead electrical wires or underground conduits -- would be integrated into the Metro Farecard system and would have a "train-like" feel, officials said.
The same kind of streetcars being used in Portland have already been purchased for use in Southeast Washington, where city planners have approved a 2.7-mile light-rail line to Bolling Air Force Base.
In addition, a study has looked at running trolleys on Route 1 through Crystal City. Another plan envisions streetcars running on Route 7 between the King Street Metro station to Tysons Corner.
"The idea is to create a third leg of transit," said Tim Lynch, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. "Metro would serve as the spokes, and the trolley would be a surface system that would become part of the wheel working in conjunction with the buses."
If approved, the trolleys would take over many of the daytime bus routes that run along Columbia Pike. During the evening rush hour, the trolleys would be supplemented by buses, carrying passengers west into Fairfax County.
Officials say the streetcars would nearly double the current mass transit capacity along the roadway, attracting an estimated 20,000 riders daily.
Although the plan is an ambitious one, planners say it is a relatively inexpensive venture in comparison with the mammoth undertaking of building Metrorail systems.
Still, cost is a concern to some bus riders who see the current system of buses as efficient.
Thomas Evans, 68, a retired Navy rear admiral, frequently takes the bus from his home four blocks south of Columbia Pike to the Metro, where he catches a train to his volunteer job at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. He and his wife have lived in the area since 1984 and consider themselves "neighborhood people," eating and shopping on the corridor.
Although he thinks trolleys would be an attractive feature for the redevelopment of Columbia Pike, he is concerned about the cost.
"In these times of tight budgets, I wonder if it's a cost-effective element of the project," Evans said. "I wonder how many buses we could buy for $100 million."
Sitting at a bus stop in the 2600 block of Columbia Pike, waiting to catch a ride to work recently, Susan Yockey, 34, said she doesn't care whether it's a bus or a trolley that she boards. She just wants it to be reliable.
"If it's going where I need to go, I'll take it," she said.
Despite lingering questions, officials say the trolley system is just the thing Columbia Pike needs to succeed.
"What you're doing is you're creating a better ride for people and also encouraging development along this corridor not unlike what Arlington County did with Metro on Wilson Boulevard and in Crystal City," Lynch said. "You concentrate your building activity on that corridor rather than doing what other jurisdictions do, which is to build parking ramps and bring in cars and traffic."
It's also about philosophy. Although buses may be convenient, some people just don't want to ride them, trolley proponents said.
"A lot of people don't see themselves as bus riders," DeCamp said. "But almost all of us in our own way would say, 'Yeah, I'll ride a streetcar.' You can [transform] Columbia Pike without rail, but it would be so much better with it."