Fairfax Board on Track To Consider Streetcars

D.C. area officials have studied the streetcar line in Portland, Ore., which has generated development.
D.C. area officials have studied the streetcar line in Portland, Ore., which has generated development. (Portland Streetcar Inc.)
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider a proposal tomorrow for a streetcar line along busy Columbia Pike in Arlington and Fairfax, setting the stage for suburban Washington's first use of a transportation system undergoing a national renaissance.

Arlington and Fairfax officials said they hope that the convenience of the $120 million system -- combined with the nostalgia for rattling trolleys of days gone by -- will entice riders out of their cars.

"It brings additional mass transit to an area that is densely populated with a lot of businesses and offices. We need another option there, especially for rush hour," said Fairfax County Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason). "Buses get mired down in traffic. Streetcars, we hope, will be a little bit more streamlined."

The 4.7-mile streetcar line would begin near the Pentagon City Metro station and go out to the Skyline neighborhood south of Leesburg Pike (Route 7) in Fairfax. If funded, it would be the first streetcar line in the Washington suburbs. District transportation officials are expected to start this summer on a two-mile route in the Anacostia area.

Arlington officials, who approved the plan Wednesday, said they hope the streetcar would create the county's next big transit route -- though on a smaller scale -- similar to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, a nationally recognized model of transit-oriented development with five Orange Line stations.

A big "if" is how Arlington and Fairfax would pay for the line. Officials said much of the cost may have to be borne by local jurisdictions because federal transportation funds are scarce.

They concede that the project is unlikely to be funded by the key Federal Transit Administration program for light rail and subways. That's because traffic models show that the streetcar would not reduce road congestion dramatically and would slice just nine minutes off a typical ride. Another drawback is that the streetcars would not have a dedicated lane; the flat tracks permit vehicles to drive over them.

Over the next 12 to 18 months, Metro officials will work with Arlington and Fairfax to find funding and make an environmental study. Route design would then start.

Streetcar critics have said it would snarl traffic and that better bus service would have the same benefits and cost less.

Proponents said a streetcar would be valuable because it would eventually attract the elusive "choice" riders -- car owners who use Metro for convenience or gasoline savings.

Arlington and District officials have been to Portland to study its five-year-old streetcar line, which averages about 9,000 weekday riders and has attracted more than $2 billion of commercial development near its track since 1997.

Portland's is one of several streetcar systems that have sprung up across the country in the past decade, according to the American Public Transportation Association, which says there are 29 light-rail or streetcar systems in the nation.

"The streetcars today are very modern vehicles," said Robin McElhenny, the project manager for Washington's Metro. "With the price of gas soaring, people are going to be making more of a choice."

One citizens group that advised the county on transportation voted against the plan, noting that the counties could boost ridership by upgrading buses at about half the cost.

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