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Arlington streetcars: Boon or boondoggle

Thursday - 3/28/2013, 5:15pm  ET

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At a townhall in Arlington on Wednesday night opponents came out to voice their displeasure. This man interrupted Arlington Board Chair Walter Tejada at the conclusion of the event, angry that he believed he wasn't getting straight answers. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

Ari Ashe, wtop.com

ARLINGTON, Va. - At a heated town hall on Wednesday night on the topic of bringing streetcars to Arlington, opponents came out with signs and interrupted answers from county board members.

"There's a less expensive alternative (to streetcars) that's much more likely to leave some money in our budget to help with affordable housing," says Board Member Libby Garvey, which drew loud applause from the crowd during the town hall.

The streetcar plan would be rolled out in two phases, covering Columbia Pike and Crystal City. The initial cost on the Columbia Pike system would be $249 million.

Garvey and members of the Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit back a bus-rapid transit option that would cost about $50 million.

"We continue to be deeply concerned about the unwillingness of the county board to fairly consider transit options for Columbia Pike, other than the fixed-rail streetcar. There is much evidence that rational and viable alternatives exist," says Peter Rousselot, spokesman for the Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit.

"Unfortunately, as the county board has done on other occasions, it used most of the Town Hall merely to restate the same claims in favor of the streetcar proposal without allowing a full discussion of other options."

Rousselot points to the rising costs for Dulles Rail and recent news about a Super Stop bus shelter running over budget as concerns about the true price tag of streetcars.

"The cost over run on the Super Stop was 100 percent. The bus stop cost $1 million. It doesn't even protect people against the wind and rain. A 100 percent cost over run on the streetcar would mean a $500 million," says Rousselot.

"Sure the bus-rapid transit could also cost more. But when you have one project that's $200 million less than the money you'll end up spending is still a whole lot less."

But Arlington Board Chair Walter Tejada says the Super Stop was an isolated incident, one that disappoints him, but insists other projects are on budget and on time.

"The problem is we won't have dedicated bus lanes on Columbia Pike. That's under a deal we have with the Virginia Department of Transportation," says Tejada. "We know we're going to have a population growth. Streetcars will entice people to leave their cars and use mass transit. Streetcars also have the large capacity we need."

"We're talking about how to get people out of their cars to commute. Streetcars do that better than bus rapid transit and better than the existing Arlington Transit buses," says David Dickson, Transportation Program Manager for the Sierra Club.

"It will tie into other transit systems like Metro. It is also the right option because with the density planned, you need the capacity that only a streetcar can deliver," says Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of The Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Several opponents point out that since streetcars also won't have a dedicated lane, it'll be more difficult when there's an accident, since buses are more mobile than streetcars attached to cables.

Others are worried that the revitalization from streetcars will drive out small businesses, unable to keep up with the higher costs associated with streetcars.

"This is absolutely the discussion we need to be having right now. There are more facts about the benefits of BRT. This is the time to make decisions. Do we buy 10 streetcars at $4 million a piece, put lay down tracks at $30 million per mile for five miles, or do we simply add new buses, connecting it to the BRT systems in Alexandria, Fairfax and Montgomery County, all at less cost?" says Garvey.

One stumbling block could be federal money. Under the plan, Virginia and Fairfax County would contribute $65-$70 million combined. The federal government would contribute another $75 million. Arlington would pick up the rest.

However, if the federal government refuses to provide funds because of sequestration, then Arlington may be left in the lurch.

"We're confident we put together an attractive proposal. But, if we don't get federal funds, we would have to see what our finance options will be. We'll cross that bridge when we cross it," says Tejada.

Arlington officials hope to unveil the streetcars in 2018 or 2019.

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