Going nowhere fast, Arlington streetcars hit political and fiscal wall


BACK TO THE FUTURE: A rendition of what Columbia Pike would look like with streetcars. Critics say planners’ vision of turning Arlington into “a city of the 1920s” is a dead-end.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. — Growing public opposition and a lack of funds have derailed plans for two streetcar lines in this densely populated Northern Virginia county.

Local officials aren’t giving up their multimillion-dollar dream, but a regional transportation expert calls their campaign “overkill.” Per mile, the compact county already benefits from more state transit money than any other.

Arlington‘s light-rail proposals — a 4.7-mile stretch of Columbia Pike and a 4-mile run through Crystal City — carry construction costs of $310 million and $140 million respectively. The figures don’t include all capital outlays, and operating expenses aren’t built in. It’s unclear how many riders either line would carry.

Joseph Warren, a transportation economist who opposes both projects, said the Columbia Pike price tag has more than doubled since county officials and their consultants began pitching the idea in 2005.

What’s worse, critics say streetcars will increase road congestion by reducing traffic lanes.

A member of the county’s Transit Advisory Committee, Warren said taxpayers are being abused.

“The county staff made statements that the public supported (streetcars). In fact, the County Board has refused to do even a random survey,” Warren told Watchdog.org in an interview.

Warren went ballistic last year when he learned the board had voted to move forward on the Crystal City project without informing the advisory committee.

That runaround and lack of transparency angered others, too.

Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman, a vocal streetcar and “smart growth” advocate, is resigning amid the rising public outcry. A special election to fill his seat in March has drawn several streetcar skeptics. Among them is independent John Vihstad, who has backing from Republicans as well as Democrats, who have dominated the board for three decades.

Most streetcar opponents prefer expansion of bus service, which could be done at a fraction of the cost of light rail.

“The Columbia Pike corridor is pretty well served by buses now,” said Bob Chase, director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. He noted that nearby Alexandria has expanded its bus service with success.

Compared with upgrading its bus network — including use of designated “bus rapid transit” lanes — Arlington’s fixation on streetcars “seems like overkill,” Chase said.

Arlington Board Chairman Walter Tejada told WTOP News that “streetcars will entice people to leave their cars and use mass transit.” He added, “Streetcars have the large capacity we need.”

Warren counters that Arlington officials and their consultants rigged the numbers to downplay buses.

Last month, Watchdog reported that “The Tide,” a light-rail line in downtown Norfolk, has fallen short of ridership projections while triggering higher fares on the train, as well as the buses.

On the Left Coast, Portland, Ore.’s long-running light-rail system has stalled, too. Streetcars there serve just 1 percent of commuters — the same share as in 2001.

“It’s a game that’s gone on for many, many years, and it’s the taxpayers who pay,” Warren said.

The Federal Transit Administration, sensing trouble in Arlington, rejected the county’s request for $60 million to kick-start streetcar funding. State support, even with Virginia’s new $3.5 billion transportation package, is unlikely.

Chase calls Arlington’s streetcar proposal “more of an amenity than a necessity.”

“Don’t say it’s in the interest of the region,” he said, noting that streetcars would have little impact on commuting patterns or volumes. If anything, he predicted the rail lines “would create more congestion and more obstacles.”

That said, Chase added that he had no objection “if the community wants to come up with its own money.”

“The problem,” he concluded, “is that there are no priorities. The regional (transportation) authority has added 200 additional projects and didn’t eliminate any.

“Until we have the discipline to do some hard analysis, there’s a danger we’ll continue to put money into projects that fail to give the return on the investment we need. That hurts public confidence.”

Kenric Ward is chief of Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau. Contact him at kenric@watchdogvirginia.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward

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