Arlington County officials have unveiled a long-awaited plan for a premium bus network and transit stops — a proposal intended to replace the canceled Columbia Pike streetcar project.
But a controversy-shy County Board wants more information before endorsing it.
The board’s concerns centered on the cost of building 23 new transit stations for an expanded bus service that would add more trips and seats between Fairfax’s Skyline development and Pentagon City, with new connections to the Navy Yard neighborhood in Southeast Washington.
Originally budgeted at $12.2 million, the price for the stations has risen to $13.3 million as county officials figured out how to adjust their transportation options after shelving the expensive, long-planned streetcar.
That increase didn’t sit well with board members who remember the public outcry three years ago when the county debuted a $1 million bus stop, complete with etched glass, swooping architecture and heating panels embedded in the floor.
At a meeting Tuesday night, lawmakers sought more details about a less expensive — and possibly less durable — version of the shelters.
“Cost is important,” said board member John Vihstadt (I), a frequent spending skeptic. “I think there’s something to be said for stops that have a shorter life span but still go out a couple of decades.”
County Manager Mark Schwartz told the board that the county still could build shelters for the budgeted $12.2 million — but they may be too small in 10 years. For $13.3 million, it could build shelters that would last for 50 years, he said, and would probably accommodate bigger crowds.
Or, Schwartz said, the county could opt for pre-fabricated shelters that would cost about $8.6 million but would last half as long, could cost more to maintain and might need to be customized to fit on the narrow sidewalks along Columbia Pike.
The stations would include boarding platforms nearly level with the bus entrance and off-board fare collection, to limit stopping time and traffic backups. The county anticipates offering several levels of service, from local ART buses to limited-stop Metrobuses as well as a “connector” bus that will appear every six minutes, stopping at every stop along the roughly five-mile route.
Board member Jay Fisette (D) argued against the cheaper station options, saying that Pike residents who have been waiting for a new transit plan would see cost-cutting as a “dumbing down” of the county’s promises.
“This is exactly what happens when you switch from rail to bus, then premium bus, then you begin dumbing down the bus system,” Fisette said. “What we should be doing is to truly create what we call premium bus service, which will entice people and create a sense of place.”
Katie Cristol (D), a newcomer to the board, said she was “very uninterested in value-engineering the process,” but wanted to investigate the pre-fab option as long as it wouldn’t delay construction.
Money for the stations would come from dedicated transportation funds and cannot be used for schools, parks or other general-fund purposes. It is separate from the cost of launching premium bus service in the corridor, which is pegged at $58 million over 10 years.
The issue of bus stops came up as the county was presenting its draft transit-development plan, which is required by the state every six years and looks a decade into the future.
The plan calls for more off-peak and weekend service to activity centers throughout the county, such as retail and recreational destinations. It also calls for a north-south connection between Rosslyn and Shirlington; more frequent service from Dunn Loring to Ballston, via Arlington Boulevard; more frequent service along Glebe Road; a new connection between Crystal City, Reagan National Airport and Shirlington; and a new connection between Buckingham and the county’s Department of Human Services facility at Sequoia Plaza.
County transit officials said they are talking to on-demand ride-sharing services to figure out ways to provide transit for areas where bus ridership is so low that regular bus service isn’t fiscally prudent. The county is also considering converting some Metrobus routes into the smaller, less-expensive Arlington Transit service, as well as consolidating or eliminating some routes.