The fate of the Columbia Pike streetcar project may be in the hands of federal transit authorities who will decide this spring whether to fund it, but the issue was all about local choices for the 350-plus Arlingtonians who turned out for an information-packed and sometimes raucous forum Wednesday night.
The construction of a $250 million streetcar system between Baileys Crossroads and Pentagon City has been in the planning stages for 15 years and been endorsed by the all-Democratic Arlington County Board and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Arlington has been upgrading streetlights and burying utilities along the street for the past few years, and a new zoning plan is in effect to help handle development that the streetcar might bring to the 4.5-mile corridor.
But as Arlington awaits word on federal funding, opposition to a streetcar line has grown and organized, based on the argument that a modern bus rapid-transit system would do nearly the same job and be as much as $200 million cheaper.
A moderator struggled to keep control at Wednesday’s meeting as a crowd questioned and shouted down County Board and staff presentations. One person called for all opponents of the streetcar to stand, while another, incensed that the event was ending at 9 p.m. before all questions were asked, tried to shout down the board’s chairman, J. Walter Tejada.
“I spent my whole evening here and wasn’t able to tell the County Board what I thought,” said Josh Ruebner, a resident of the Columbia Pike area for 14 years. “This is simply a gentrification scheme to benefit developers.”
The county staff and four of the five elected board members said a streetcar line is needed along Columbia Pike because it can carry about twice as many passengers as a bus can and, if population estimates are correct, 14,000 new apartments and condos will be built in the area in the next decade or two.
Moving those new residents among home, work, and shopping and entertainment venues could be a nightmare if they opt to drive, transportation officials say, so an improved mass-transit system is necessary. The buses that ply the road every two minutes during rush hours are at capacity, carrying 16,000 people a day.
Columbia Pike residents, who pay some of the most affordable rents in the county, worry that a streetcar line and increased development will drive them from their homes. County Board members crafted a plan over the summer designed to keep the same number of affordable units in the area by allowing developers to build taller and more dense housing in exchange for creating some lower-cost apartments. That plan seemed to come as news to some members in the audience.Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit StreetcarNow.org
“If this is such a good idea, why don’t you let the county vote on it?” one resident asked, prompting the chant of “Vote! Vote! Vote!”
County Board member Mary H. Hynes said the county does not have the right under Virginia law to hold a referendum unless the county is asking voters to approve issuing general obligation bonds.
“How is it not an ethics violation for a member of this board to be employed by a company that has financially benefited from this project?” another resident asked.
Last winter, board member Chris Zimmerman disclosed that he had been hired as a freelance consultant for AECOM in Canada, whose parent company has done work on the streetcar project. When he signed a contract with the firm, Zimmerman voluntarily reported that fact in advance, even though the amount he was paid was small enough that he was not required to do so.
“I did one job last year over two days, on an hourly basis, for one company,” Zimmerman said. “My total billing for that was $510.”
Board member Libby Garvey, who has objected to the streetcar line and promoted a modern bus rapid-transit system, said that studies backing the streetcar option were not true cost-benefit analyses.
The streetcar line would be built with about $75 million in federal funds and $35 million in state funds.
Fairfax has committed $35 million to it from a mixture of local, state and federal money. Arlington’s $104 million contribution would come from a commercial and industrial real estate tax that can be used for transportation only and can’t be repurposed for other needs.