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Arlington streetcar project hits wall of public opposition

BACK TO THE FUTURE: A rendering of what streetcars would look like in Arlington, Va.
BACK TO THE FUTURE: A rendering of what streetcars would look like in Arlington, Va.
Courtesy photos

Growing public opposition and a lack of funds have derailed plans for two streetcar lines in densely populated Arlington 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, reported Tuesday.

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 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 nearbyAlexandria 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 downtownNorfolk, 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.

See full story here.

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