Virginia will increase state funding for the controversial Columbia Pike streetcar project by up to $65 million, the state transportation chief told officials in Arlington and Fairfax counties this week, allowing the streetcar line to be built at least a year faster and without federal funds.
“From a transportation perspective, it’s the right thing for this area to be doing,” Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said of the project. “You can’t get buses big enough to carry the anticipated ridership on that road.”
He warned that the details and timing of the additional funding still need to be finalized but described the letter sent to county officials Thursday as “us saying we want to work with you.”
The long-planned streetcar line, which is expected to run from the Skyline area of Fairfax to the Pentagon City Metro station, has been projected to cost about $358 million. Arlington dropped that estimate to $333 million Friday because of the faster completion time. County officials hope it will be done by 2020.
Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, called the additional money, which will cover as much as half of all design and construction costs, “a sound investment” that “will help transform one of the region’s most important corridors.”
The Arlington County Board chairman, Jay Fisette (D), said he was “thrilled the state has embraced this.”
The money will come from $216.5 million budgeted over a six-year period for “fixed guideway” projects. Layne said it will not be impacted by the general revenue budget crunch that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced Thursday because “very little transportation revenue comes from the general fund.”
The Federal Transit Administration last year rejected Arlington’s bid to join the Small Starts fund, which could have provided 49 percent of construction costs for the streetcar. The additional state money will not completely replace the $140.5 million Arlington sought; officials said they will postpone some capital projects and request additional regional transportation funds to make up the rest. The state earlier pledged $70.7 million in state funds to the project.
Not using federal funds means that the county can assume its normal inflation rate of 3 percent for the project, not the federal transit agency-suggested 4 percent.
Local elected officials say no homeowner-financed general obligation bonds or residential taxes would go toward building the project, although operating costs are expected to be borne by taxpayers.
Opposition to the streetcar began building about two years ago, when Libby Garvey (D) was elected to the Arlington County Board on an anti-streetcar platform.
This spring, streetcar opponent John Vihstadt (I) won a special election for the board seat formerly held by the biggest streetcar booster, Chris Zimmerman (D). Vihstadt and others called for a voter referendum on the project, but the board rejected that request last month.
On Friday, Garvey called the streetcar a “foolish and wasteful” use of scarce transportation dollars that “will not improve transit on the Pike.”
Vihstadt said the state rushed to respond to the funding request that Fisette and Bulova made a month ago. “Had the Commonwealth done its homework, it would have learned that a modified form of bus rapid transit could be implemented much more cheaply, more quickly, with greater regional connectivity,” Vihstadt said in a statement.
Arlington officials have lately been promoting the Columbia Pike project as part of a “seamless system” that includes the less-controversial Crystal City to Potomac Yard streetcar route. They’ve also begun emphasizing the two-county nature of the Columbia Pike project, although less than a mile of the 4.9-mile route is in Fairfax.
The project is closely tied to Arlington’s plans for redeveloping the aging corridor, which county officials say will preserve more than 6,000 affordable apartments for several decades.
A county-funded consultant’s study released in March said the streetcar would generate $3.2 billion to $4.4 billion in new real estate value for Arlington and Fairfax counties over 30 years. It also estimated that the streetcar would produce $455 million to $895 million in new tax revenue for both counties over 30 years, attract 6,600 new jobs within 10 years, and increase state income and sales taxes.