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.
The plan is contingent upon the authority prevailing in a case brought before Virginia's Supreme Court last week challenging its right to raise taxes.
Streetcars have been popularized in such communities as Portland, Ore., and are planned for the District as well, starting in Anacostia. In the Columbia Pike plan, the line will generally run along the outside lane of traffic, beside the curb. Streetcars share the lanes with other cars and can get caught in traffic snarls just like other vehicles, but there are plans to synchronize traffic lights with their travel.
Skeptics, such as Arlington Republican activist Wayne Kubicki, worry that the streetcar project will cost more than current projections and might not have the advertised development and congestion-alleviation benefits. "It sounds half-cooked," Kubicki said.
Supporters said streetcars take less time at stops, because people can prepay and quickly enter multiple doors, and they can carry more people along a route than is possible with buses. More than 14,000 people ride buses along Columbia Pike daily, and officials said the maximum number of riders that buses could carry is about 20,000. Streetcars could handle 25,000 to 30,000 riders, they said.
Backers also cite the psychological benefits of rail, saying people who would not ride buses are more likely to at least occasionally give up their sedan or sport-utility vehicle for a streetcar, just as they do for Metro. The project could also reassure those considering developing property along the tracks, especially during an economic downturn, according to Peter Owen, a member of Arlington's transportation advisory commission.
"If you see the government is digging a huge hole and sticking in steel rails and putting wires up, you know that streetcar's going to be there, even if there's a rough patch two or three years down the road," Owen said.
For an animated view of the streetcar's path from project backers, go tohttp://www.piketransit.com/downloads/PTI-Columbia-Pike-Streetcar.wmv.
For the list of projects approved last week by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, go tohttp://www.thenovaauthority.org/meetings.htmland click on Six Year Plan Projects. (Amounts for later years not yet set.)