Arlington board narrowly backs Columbia Pike, Crystal City streetcars

The Arlington board on Saturday adopted a 10-year capital improvement program that includes funding for both the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar lines, a pair of major transit projects that are seen either as important economic initiatives or massive boondoggles.

As expected, the board approved the capital improvement project by a 3-2 vote. Chairman Jay Fisette, Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes, all Democrats, voted in favor. Independent John Vihstadt and Democrat Libby Garvey were opposed.

“The streetcar will get us a much better return on investment that will help fund that school growth and other services across the community,” Fisette said prior to casting his vote.

The 4.9-mile Columbia Pike streetcar will cost Arlington an estimated $268.1 million, and Fairfax County roughly $70 million. The 2.5-mile Crystal City line will run $217.4 million. In the case of both, the vast majority of spending comes in fiscal years 2017 through 2020, when the lines are expected to start passenger service.

Arlington and Fairfax have agreed to forgo federal funding for the Columbia Pike line, a decision — made possible by Virginia’s recent decision to toss in another $65 million to the streetcar pot -— that is expected to shave $25 million off the final price tag and a year from the project timeline. But those savings have not quelled opposition to the project.

Vihstadt, the only Republican on the Arlington board, condemned the decision, calling the streetcar a “financial and operational albatross.” Vihstadt won his seat in an April special election largely on the strength of his anti-streetcar platform.

“Regardless of the mix of federal state or local funds, it’s the public’s money after all and it is an unwise public expenditure,” he said. “Regardless of where the streetcar is, north or south, east or west Arlington, that will not solve our transit woes, or be a panacea for our school capacity crisis, or economic development or affordable housing.”

Streetcar supporters say it is a desperately needed option on a congested corridor (the most heavily traveled bus corridor in Virginia) that lacks fixed rail. They say, citing a study the county commissioned, that it will attract more than three times the private investment than “enhanced bus service.”

“Fixed rail is more comfortable, it’s more accessible, more environmentally friendly and it will ease congestion along this corridor,” Fisette said.

Fisette compared Saturday’s vote to Arlington’s decision in the 1970s to eschew an Interstate 66 alignment for the Metro in favor of service underground, creating the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor as a result. The county must not “shy away from strategic investments,” he said, even if those investments are unpopular in some sectors, more expensive and more disruptive.

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