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Leaders Seek Control of Columbia Pike to Speed Up Development

By Greg Gaudio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Arlington County leaders want to take over control of a busy stretch of Columbia Pike from the state to speed up their effort to transform the heavily used highway into a transit-friendly road with a streetcar line, stores and offices within walking distance of homes.

The 3 1/2 -mile stretch of the Pike, the main Arlington portion of a proposed streetcar route between the Pentagon and the Skyline area of Fairfax County, is owned by the Virginia Department of Transportation. If the Pike and parts of nearby roads were transferred to Arlington, county officials would no longer have to navigate VDOT's lengthy approval process, they say, and such projects as the streetcar system and future apartment-retail complexes could be completed years earlier.

"It literally took our staff four years to get a crosswalk approved," said County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D). "It took nine years to get the left-hand turn signals at Glebe Road and Columbia Pike."

VDOT seems inclined to agree to the request, made this month by the board. The Pike and parts of South Joyce Street and Army Navy Drive could come under Arlington's control about Jan. 1.

The proposal comes as building along the Pike progresses steadily, even in the struggling economy. One complex of apartments and shops opened in December, construction is underway on two more, and demolition to make way for another has begun.

Under VDOT's rules, it can take the county up to a year to receive approval for small-scale projects and even longer for those that are more complex, officials said.

Zimmerman said the delays arise because VDOT's design standards favor rural and suburban projects that are more common throughout the state. Because Arlington is urban, he said, the county frequently has to apply for exceptions.

VDOT follows nationally accepted design guidelines, spokeswoman Joan Morris said. But she acknowledged that the process can be sluggish in certain cases. "I think our processes can be messy," Morris said. "They're just a function of the world we live in. They're not designed to hinder, but they can be messy, long processes."

She said VDOT would not oppose the county's request and that the Commonwealth Transportation Board would rule on the matter in the fall.

The state doesn't often cede roads to counties, said Julie Brown, a VDOT official who works with local municipalities. She said she could recall only one other recent transfer, in Henrico County.

Arlington and Henrico are unique in that, since the 1930s, they have controlled their local streets; in those counties, VDOT controls only state highways. In every other county, VDOT controls all roads. Fairfax is in the initial stages of exploring whether to take over some of its roads.

Although the county already does some maintenance along the Pike, it would assume additional expenses of $180,000 to $450,000 annually in acquiring the road, according to a news release. Zimmerman said the ability to develop with fewer delays would offset those expenses because it would expedite real estate revenue from new buildings.

Karen Vasquez, a spokeswoman in the county's Department of Economic Development, said development along the Pike continues to go "quite well." She noted that most projects' funding was in place before the recession but added that Penrose Square, an apartment-retail complex to be anchored by a new Giant store, is a positive sign because its developers secured funding early this year. Only one major project, an overhaul of Arlington Mill Community Center, has stalled, she said.

The streetcar project, a joint venture between Arlington and Fairfax counties and Metro, is progressing as well. Preliminary environmental and engineering studies have begun and are expected to take up to two years, Zimmerman said. With about 15,000 riders a day, the Pike is the busiest bus corridor in the state, according to county officials.

The streetcar project's estimated cost is $160 million: $138 million for the 3 1/2 -mile stretch in Arlington and $22 million for the mile-plus part in Fairfax. Officials said they are optimistic about the possibility of federal funding because public transportation has become a higher priority under the Obama administration.

Some in the county view the streetcar and mixed-use developments as key elements in reinvigorating a strip that stagnated in the latter half of the 20th century.

"I would want to see Columbia Pike viewed broadly as one of the new great places, where people will happily choose to live and invest," said Jim Whittaker, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, a nonprofit group that works with the county to spur growth along the road.

But Joseph J. Warren, a member of Arlington's Transit Advisory Committee, said a streetcar isn't needed when "you have bus service that good, that frequent." In his estimation, the streetcar isn't worth the cost or the traffic backups that would result from closing one lane of the Pike to build it.

He also said a portion of the community opposes the recent mixed-use developments, believing that they could drive up housing costs and decrease diversity.

The county is looking at how to maintain affordable housing and diversity in the area, said Jennifer Smith, the Columbia Pike Initiative coordinator in the county's Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development.

"It's going to be a multiyear effort to look at this," she said. "We're just recently underway within the last few months."

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