In his Dec. 6 Local Opinions commentary, “Arlington’s runaway streetcar,” William Vincent of the group Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit argued that Arlington County has pushed ahead with plans for a streetcar on Columbia Pike without properly examining other, possibly less expensive options. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We are pursuing a streetcar-bus network because it is the approach that best meets Arlington County’s long-term transportation needs and because it is critical to the community’s vision of transforming Columbia Pike from merely a thoroughfare into a livable “Main Street” served by a variety of transit options.
Starting with the Pike Transit Initiative 10 years ago, Arlington has thoroughly reviewed options for new high-capacity, environmentally friendly transit service along Columbia Pike. This process included extensive analysis of bus and streetcar options, as documented in the 2005 Columbia Pike Transit Alternatives Analysis and 2012 Environmental Assessment.
The approved transit alternative — a combination of streetcars and buses — was adopted by the boards of both Arlington and Fairfax counties after extensive community participation. The bottom line is not difficult to grasp: Streetcars have up to 100 percent more capacity than buses and attract more riders. Providing more capacity on fewer vehicles and substituting streetcars for some bus routes will minimize the impact of expanded public transit on the street network, allowing other modes of travel, including cars, to continue to move freely.
We know we have to act. Projections for 2035 show that we will need to accommodate more than 38,000 trips per day on transit along Columbia Pike. Today on the Pike, conventional buses come every two to three minutes during rush hour, carrying about 16,000 passengers daily. Even using larger, articulated buses, there is not enough street capacity for buses alone to meet our needs by 2035.
Vincent accused the county of masking the Columbia Pike streetcar’s cost by funding components separately. But the elements he describes — new transit stations, burying utility lines and streetscape improvements — are not designed solely to serve streetcars. They will benefit bus riders, pedestrians and bicyclists before the streetcar even arrives. To delay these would be a disservice to Columbia Pike neighbors who have waited for such enhancements for years.
Vincent and his group advocate for bus rapid transit (BRT), which requires a dedicated lane. Any transit option on Columbia Pike must operate in mixed traffic. The Virginia Department of Transportation requires that Arlington maintain four travel lanes. Creating a dedicated lane by eliminating turn lanes at intersections would result in gridlock. Widening the road would require destroying small businesses, historic properties and the very fabric of the Columbia Pike community. These realities eliminate the possibility of BRT on Columbia Pike.
Vincent cited analysis by the Institute for Transit and Development Policy (ITDP) that claims BRT is a better investment than streetcars. But he ignores key facts from the same report. Only two of the 12 BRT and bus lines included in ITDP’s survey were categorized as having “strong” transit-oriented development impacts — a priority along Columbia Pike — while both streetcars profiled (the Portland Streetcar and Seattle’s South Lake Union Streetcar) achieved “strong” impacts. In fact, these two lines leveraged more development per dollar invested than did 16 of the 19 other transit lines that ITDP studied.
A Columbia Pike streetcar is key to Arlington County’s vision for transportation and community development along this important corridor. Using capital funding from dedicated transportation funds, which can’t be used for other needs, the streetcar will extend high-capacity transit to an area that lies outside the Metro corridors and is one of the commonwealth’s most heavily traveled routes. It will encourage the transit-oriented development we want while allowing us to preserve Columbia Pike’s diversity and its significant stock of affordable housing. It will connect the Pike to Crystal City. It will grow the county’s tax base. It will allow residents to go without a car.
That’s the type of sustainable growth that has made Arlington a success and on which our county’s future depends.
The writer, a Democrat, is chairman of the Arlington County Board.