Arlington board passes streetcar money

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Arlington County Board approved a $26 million contract for preliminary engineering or design for the Columbia Pike streetcar line on a 3-to-2 vote.

The decision, with Board Chairman Jay Fisette voting with Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes in favor and members Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt opposing, was not a surprise.

The Columbia Pike streetcar line would run 7.4 miles from the Skyline section of Fairfax County to Pentagon City and eventually the Crystal City Metro station, connecting to the Metro Transitway along U.S. Route 1 toward Alexandria.

“This will reduce congestion. With the people coming and the jobs coming, buses cannot handle the capacity that is expected in this corridor,” says Fisette.

“One of the things they keep saying is that only streetcar can carry the capacity we need. No streetcar line will carry anything close to the capacity we need,” counters Garvey.

The contract will fund work on questions such as where the substations and a car barn should be placed.

Garvey called the $26 million a waste of taxpayer money. She says that when the major construction money is due, the board will not approve it because residents will vote out lawmakers who support the project.

Tejada and Hynes are up for re-election in 2015; Vihstadt must run for re- election this year, after winning a special election for a seat vacated by Chris Zimmerman earlier this year.

Opponents such as Garvey and the Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit say they believe this project costs too much and won’t solve the congestion issue along Columbia Pike.

“I’ve lived on Columbia Pike since 1989 and there should not be one more dime, not one more dollar for the Columbia Pike [streetcar] folly,” says resident John Antonelli.

“Streetcars are a mode designed to work in mass transit,” says Fisette. “Just look at the 16th Street corridor… Backed-up buses. Air pollution from the vehicles. It’s very different, a clean streetcar system.”

Garvey counters, “Streetcars are notorious slower than buses. If there’s something in the road, they stop; they can’t move.”

Supporters say the streetcar would hold more passengers than a bus, thus taking more cars off the road. Opponents say they believe streetcars do not hold as many people as supporters would suggest, and that buses hold enough people to take a lot of cars off the road.

“Sixty-five percent of the growth in our county over the next 30 years will be along this streetcar route. If you don’t have a higher-capacity vehicle that will be more comfortable, that will attract riders, then you will create congestion,” says Fisette.

The project will cost $333 million, with the Crystal City Metro portion bringing the total to $585 million or more.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Lane sent a letter to Arlington suggesting the state will cover at least $65 million for the streetcar project.

“The state has a huge budget problem right now. The agreement they gave to you has more weasel words than a Philadelphia lawyer can put forward in a day. Don’t expect the money,” says Antonelli.

The regional transportation money from the transportation package of a couple years ago would provide new funding, as well as help from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. Fairfax County also will contribute money because three stops are near Skyline Drive-Bailey Crossroads.

Preliminary engineering and design would last until 2016; construction would begin the following year and streetcar service could begin in 2020.

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