Four members of the Arlington County Board, along with county staff, made their best cases for streetcars in Crystal City and along Columbia Pike Wednesday night, to a largely skeptical audience that peppered them with questions about why the streetcar would be superior to buses.
The streetcar townhall meeting at Kenmore Middle School attracted a near-capacity crowd of up to 500 people, according to one county staff estimate. Based on the relative volume of applause at various points, the crowd seemed to be almost 2:1 against the streetcar.
The Board, like the audience, was divided. Board chair Walter Tejada said the streetcar “encourages people to get out of their cars, and encourages developers to invest,” while also increasing ridership capacity.
“Streetcars are at the center of the vision for the Route 1 and Columbia Pike corridors,” Tejada said. “Buses alone cannot provide the transit capacity and capability that we need to transform these areas. By themselves, buses cannot serve the projected ridership.”
Sitting at the end of the County Board table on stage was Libby Garvey, who garnered applause as she led the charge against the streetcar and in favor of an enhanced bus system. Garvey said she was concerned about the streetcar’s price tag ($250 million for the Columbia Pike line alone) and about disruptions to small business during construction.
“I believe Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) will get as much development as a streetcar, maybe even more,” Garvey said. “You can get the same benefit for a lot less money, which means that there’s a lot of money left over to actually help small businesses. My biggest concern is [the construction process]… no matter what we do, people will not be able to get to those small businesses, and they can’t survive.”
Those points were countered by county staff, who that said studies have shown that fixed rail attracts more investment, that BRT without dedicated lanes (like it would be on the Pike) does not attract development, and that the rail construction process will take place in small sections that will only take about a month to complete. Staff also said that a survey of Pike residents indicates that nearly 20 percent of respondents would ride a streetcar but not a bus.
Garvey was skeptical, calling into question some of the studies done that supported the streetcar option over BRT.
“The statistics that are cited, it’s really fact of fiction,” she said.