One year after Arlington County abruptly canceled a long-planned $550 million streetcar line, little has changed along Columbia Pike’s five congested miles, despite the county’s promises to find ways to improve public transportation there.
The future of Columbia Pike and the related Crystal City corridor is tied up in a state-required, countywide transportation development plan which, like a crowded bus in rush-hour traffic, is creeping forward slowly, frustrating those who expected more progress.
Officials are evaluating routes, schedules, circulator buses, shuttles, limited-stop services, longer buses, off-board fare collection, transit signal priority and lane repurposing. But no decisions are expected until late spring or early summer.
“Jay [Fisette] and I certainly never thought this was turnable on a dime,” said County Board Chair Mary H. Hynes (D), who like a majority of the board supported the streetcar projects but voted to kill them after vocal public criticism of the cost and scope.
“Moving too fast also gets you into trouble. You need the community to understand so you can move forward together.”
Fisette (D), who as board chairman last year proposed the cancellation, said transportation is connected to too many other policies to rush it. He made the same point in January, when board member and streetcar critic Libby Garvey (D) tried to get the county manager to “fast-track” the plans for an alternative.
“Part of what has to happen is a thoughtful and orderly process,” Fisette said last week. Noting that the streetcar wasn’t supposed to begin operating until 2021, he added: “No doubt, an enhanced bus system can be implemented by then.”
Arlington transportation officials say their goal is to include proposed improvements for the Columbia Pike and Crystal City corridors in the 10-year transportation plan they will submit to the County Board by May, in time to be included in the biennial capital improvements projects budget.
That step is needed, they say, in order to qualify for federal and state transportation money, which pays for much of the county’s transit projects. Community briefings and surveys are underway, including one that can be completed online.
The multi-step process is seen in some quarters as foot-dragging.
“What more needs to happen?” asked state Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Arlington), who represents much of the Columbia Pike corridor. “It’s going on a year, and we still have no plan from the county.”
Juliet Hiznay, a longtime Arlingtonian who is past president of the business-oriented Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, questioned the County Board’s long-term commitment to improving transportation along the corridor.
“I think they’ve done nothing,” she said. “They’ve held meetings. They’ve looked at old solutions that have been discarded previously.”
Columbia Pike is the most-used bus corridor in Virginia, with 17,000 passenger trips each weekday, 64 percent of which are headed to the Pentagon or Pentagon City.
Buses that run along Columbia Pike are at or near capacity during weekday rush hours. Given the forecast for 21 percent population growth there over the next 10 years, county officials expect even more demand and worry that the bus system will be overwhelmed.
More than $200 million in infrastructure improvements are planned for Columbia Pike and Crystal City over the next six years, from burying utilities underground to additional sidewalk, curb and streetscape improvements.
Twenty-three new transit stops are planned, at a cost of $12.4 million. A rapid bus transitway in Crystal City will connect the Metro stop to Alexandria’s Potomac Yard shopping center, where Alexandria’s bus rapid transit system will then ferry passengers to the Braddock Metro stop.
But the streetcar was never meant to be just a transportation plan. It was supposed to trigger redevelopment throughout the southern part of the county.
Some of that growth is still happening. New condos and apartments are rising on the eastern end of Columbia Pike, and there are proposals in the pipeline for the Food Star site at George Mason and Columbia Pike, for example. The county’s economic development authority is working to attract more retailers to the area.
Several commuters who were questioned last week said they were basically happy with the existing bus service. Rim Uk, an Arlingtonian for just one month, cannot understand why her fellow Virginians could find anything wrong with it.
“Every 20 minutes, a bus comes. Everybody is helpful. Everybody is polite,” she said on a windy evening commute from her Tysons Corner retail job to her new home. “I lived in [Cherry Hill] New Jersey and the bus came only once an hour — if you compare this to Chicago or New Jersey, this is the easiest.”