Streetcar Plan Has Money and Desire

Tim Lynch, left, director of the Columbia Pike revitalization group, and Dave DeCamp stand by the pike with a map showing the proposed streetcar route.
Tim Lynch, left, director of the Columbia Pike revitalization group, and Dave DeCamp stand by the pike with a map showing the proposed streetcar route. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008

Plans to build a Northern Virginia streetcar network, once considered fanciful, received a major boost last week, when officials unanimously voted to give the project its first big infusion of funding.

The project was among the top dollar winners in the funding package passed Thursday by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, the body instituting new regional transportation taxes put in place last year.

It also was the focus of sparring in the long-running philosophical contest between advocates of mass transit and those who emphasize the need for major road construction to address the Washington region's snarled traffic.

Backers hope the initial 4.7-mile Columbia Pike line, which will connect Pentagon City in Arlington County to the Skyline area of Fairfax County, will seed a much broader streetcar network, which eventually could stretch from Alexandria to Tysons Corner.

"It is one of the most important things we can do to move people in Northern Virginia and deal with air pollution and global warming," said Authority Chairman Chris Zimmerman, who also is a member of the Arlington County Board.

The proposal also fits with the vision followed for decades by Arlington of directing development near transit, such as along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Development policies put in place in 2003 allow Columbia Pike landowners to build bigger projects if they follow strict rules intended to make the area more attractive.

"Having a sidewalk cafe next to buses that are pulling up, with the exhaust fumes and the noise they make, is not as inviting," Zimmerman said. The project, estimated to cost $138.5 million, "will have effectively paid for itself" in added revenue from new development, he said.

But Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance and a proponent of the transportation taxes, said the streetcar and other projects "fail the regional significance test" given Northern Virginia's vast need for improved roads. He said that trolleys are an antiquated and unjustified solution and that too many of the projects backed by the authority are primarily local in scope.

"This sets a bad precedent," Chase said, adding at a public hearing before the authority's vote that members should suppress their urge "to bring home the local bacon. You have to check your local hats at the door."

Fairfax Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D-At Large) was among authority members who argued that the group's initial funding choices would have regional impact. "We're going to do a lot of roads," he said, but "we have to have a balanced approach."

Connolly also said the legislation giving the authority the power to raise funds says that each jurisdiction should benefit based on the amount it contributes. "This is a political coalition," Connolly said, adding that such smaller jurisdictions as Falls Church need to see results just as larger communities do.

The $392 million spending plan approved by the authority last week covers 2 1/2 years and includes more than $150 million for Metro, as well as a list of projects small and large, from bike trails and a municipal garage in Falls Church to an interchange at routes 7 and 659 in Loudoun County and the widening of Route 1 in Prince William County, among other projects. The authority approved $36.9 million for the streetcar project.

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