Streetcars coming
to Columbia Pike

Columbia Pike has always been a key east-west corridor through Northern Virginia, starting in Annandale and ending at the Pentagon in Arlington. But traffic on “the Pike” is difficult, and some stretches were not seen as, uh, aesthetically pleasing.

That’s all changing, and faster than you might think. Arlington has been methodically and impressively redeveloping the Pike, without displacing families.

And for traffic, two counties are leading the charge back to the future: streetcars.

Yes, streetcars are coming, and Fairfax and Arlington counties are working together to make the first 4.7-mile stretch along the Pike into a streetcar showcase. Studies and preparations are underway for a line that would start in the Skyline area of Baileys Crossroads in Fairfax, head up Columbia Pike past Four Mile Run, through Columbia Heights and up to Pentagon City and the Metro.

The two counties have set up their own funding streams for streetcars. They will apply for a key federal grant that will provide a large chunk of the initial cost, last estimated at $160 million. The hope is to have the first stretch open in 2016, with a second leg that would run south through Crystal City to the Alexandria line, and with the potential to fan out through the eastern part of Northern Virginia.

The plans to redevelop Columbia Pike were completed in 2005, but the streetcar initiative goes back well beyond that. The combination of the two, however, has drawn developers to the Pike en masse: In the past four years, nearly 1,000 residential units and 200,000 square feet of commercial space have been built; a combination residential-retail project — with 259 more apartments, 44 townhouses and 15,000 square feet of retail — is on the boards.

Christopher Zimmerman, chairman of the Arlington County Board, said the Pike is following in the footsteps of Shirlington and Clarendon, once-quiet areas of Arlington that benefited from smart planning and easy access and are now booming. “Arlington is big enough to do cool stuff, and small enough to get it done,” Zimmerman said.

The bus lines that travel Columbia Pike now carry 15,000 passengers a day, said Arlington’s transit bureau chief, Steve Del Giudice, making it the most heavily used route in Northern Virginia, if not the entire state. And studies have projected that if streetcars join the Pike, they will carry roughly 26,000 passengers per day, Del Giudice said.

The streetcars would run mostly in the right lane, with embedded tracks and electric wires above, with low-floor vehicles for easy access from the curb. They would shift to the median near the end points in Skyline and Pentagon City. There will be designated stops.

In Fairfax County, the streetcar route heading west from Arlington turns onto South Jefferson Street, crosses the county line and heads into the Leesburg Pike Plaza, across Route 7 from the massive Skyline Towers.

Fairfax Supervisor Penny Gross said that Skyline was built in anticipation of Metro coming through Baileys Crossroads — but that didn’t happen. “We’re trying to make up for a mistake that was made 40 years ago,” she said.

In the future, the streetcar could extend through Skyline down to Seminary Road and Northern Virginia Community College, Gross said, and possibly even farther down Seminary to the new BRAC complex at Interstate 395. Alexandria and Falls Church also envision ways for the streetcar to help them.

Besides the Columbia Pike streetcars, plans are underway for a second leg, which would take the route down the length of Crystal City to Four Mile Run and the border with Alexandria. A logical extension from that end of the line would take the streetcar into Alexandria’s Potomac Yard shopping complex, then down into Old Town and perhaps even farther down Route 1 back into Fairfax County.

There are a couple of keys to the streetcars’ success, Zimmerman said. One is that the streetcars have to be an appealing alternative to driving, particularly for upper-income users, as opposed to the only way to get some place. “When transit is by choice for the upper end,” Zimmerman said, “the lower end benefits.”

Demand also needs to exist, and the construction of new apartment buildings such as the Halstead, Siena Park and Penrose Square help, as do the arrival of new restaurants, such as Sauca and Cafe Sazon, a new Lost Dog Cafe and a new Giant grocery store as destinations.

But Arlington County is sensitive to the “g word” — gentrification. “We want to keep our pupuserias, too,” Zimmerman said. The landmark Bob and Edith’s Diner appears to be prospering and not going anywhere.

It’s the “new urbanism,” Zimmerman said — creating a city environment without the city congestion or pollution. The recent additions of residential and commercial space on the Pike have, so far, not added to the traffic. Streetcars will help maintain that balance, Zimmerman said.

“People don’t understand how much we give up to cars,” he said. By planning for density and transit, “when you’re done, you have something that’s so much more valuable.”

So all that’s left is the money. Arlington and Fairfax hope they’ll be eligible for a Federal Transit Administration “Small Starts” grant of up to $75 million. Del Giudice said there is no current estimate on how much the total project will cost, but he hopes the feds will kick in one-third, Arlington and Fairfax will pay a third, and the state will add the final third of the cost.

Also, some type of oversight board or committee will have to be formed. Nothing has been decided on that front yet.

But “it’s going to happen,” Del Giudice said. “It’s been done elsewhere. It can be done here.”