The lingering questions that surround the planned Columbia Pike streetcar project have given developers pause as they look to build along the corridor, according to one of the Pike’s biggest boosters.
Takis Karantonis, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, says he’s seen a slowdown in development and business interest in recent months, as local politicians and residents have continued to debate the merits of the streetcar project. With Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman, a key streetcar supporter, retiring early next year, that debate is likely to continue unabated as candidates vie to fill his seat in a special election.
Despite some uncertainty about how and when the Pike streetcar will be funded, Arlington County is still moving forward with the project. Karantonis is pushing for the streetcar to be built sooner rather than later.
“There isn’t uncertainty around the streetcar, but there are lot of people who want to create uncertainty,” Karantonis told ARLnow.com Monday. “This is concerning the business community because people want to be able to at least make medium-term decisions, and they don’t welcome this kind of prolonged debate about the streetcar itself.”
Karantonis said the ongoing questions about when the streetcar will actually be built has slowed both commercial and residential development. Modern development strives for a mix of uses, Karantonis said, so when one form development is slowed, all forms are.
Small businesses could also be impacted by any delays in the streetcar project, Karantonis said. The thousands of daily passengers the streetcar is projected to carry can’t come soon enough for Columbia Pike merchants. Pockets of retail space along the Pike have been vacant for years, Karantonis said, and the streetcar will help boost businesses in neglected areas.
“It’s not easier for [small businesses] to wait,” he said. “They look at the streetcar as a catalyst and a game-changer. The more challenging the economic times are for us with the government sputtering along, this hardens the demand on local government to deliver the investment goods it has planned for.”
County Board Member Libby Garvey — who was elected last year on an anti-streetcar platform and is currently the lone voice of streetcar dissent on the Board — isn’t so sure about Karantonis’ hypothesis.
“It would surprise me if there were many businesses very concerned about delays in the streetcar,” Garvey wrote in an email. “Remember, we are talking about adding 10 streetcars to 34 buses along the Pike. Hardly a major change in transit, just a major change in expense and disruption of traffic as 10 fixed rail vehicles run in mixed traffic creating headaches for everyone.”
Those who live in and around Crystal City questioned the noise and safety impacts of the planned Crystal City streetcar at a public forum last night (Wednesday), but many in attendance seemed generally pleased with the county’s presentation.
County officials gave a presentation explaining the current vision for the streetcar now that the planning process is underway. The six-stop transit system will connect with the Columbia Pike streetcar in Pentagon City to the north, and will go as far south as Four Mile Run, running primarily along Crystal Drive.
One change to the design since the last community forum on the streetcar earlier this year is moving the southbound streetcar alignment directly adjacent to Jefferson Davis Highway, and off Clark and Bell Streets, as had been previously planned. The northbound and southbound tracks will both be on Crystal Drive from S. Glebe Road to 18th Street before diverging.
About two dozen residents were in attendance, most of whom asked questions of Senior Transportation Planner Matthew Huston, who gave the presentation. Huston said the impacts to environmental and cultural resources in the surrounding area were close to nonexistent, and said the noise generated is consistent with a busy urban, commercial area like Crystal City. Some attendees seemed unconvinced, however.
“My understanding of the Crystal City Sector Plan is a better balance between residence and commercial,” said one woman in the audience. “You’re putting a streetcar in an area that’s largely residential. I think you need to consider treating the residents not as office buildings.”
Many of Huston’s answers were simple acknowledgments that residents’ concerns would be addressed in the ongoing environmental study, which will continue until next spring.
“We consider residential buildings sensitive users,” Huston said. “We specifically look at the impact to sensitive users in the environmental study.”
Other residents questioned the alignment — one wondered why it the streetcar tracks don’t run further along Jefferson Davis Highway, which he said would make it more accessible to the residents of Aurora Highlands to the west and would reduce what he sees as a potential safety hazard at the intersection of Crystal Drive in 12th Street.
Still, opposition to the streetcar was relatively subdued, especially compared to some of the heated public dialogue over the Columbia Pike streetcars system.
“I’m pleased that they’re looking at all the right issues and asking the right questions,” said Crystal City resident Gerry Fuller after the forum. “There’s a lot of things they can’t do much about, like the width of the street… I’m in favor of any proposal to get people out of their cars. I think it’s the direction they have to go.”
Huston said “the assumption” is the Crystal City streetcar will connect with the Columbia Pike streetcar once both systems are complete, and that travelers will be able to ride from the Skyline section of Fairfax County to Four Mile Run with no transfer. Huston said the streetcar would be funded with a mix of state and local funds.
The Right Note is a weekly opinion column published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
The County Board announced it has awarded a $97,000 contract for yet another study of the Columbia Pike trolley. The study will look at data about the current trolley and bus plans versus bus-only alternatives.
In the past, the Board has ignored the data and input it does not believe fits the narrative that a trolley on Columbia Pike is, well, a big shiny ball of awesome. And, the consensus among people I talk to who are regular “Board watchers” is this study is a play to see if the Board can take another run at federal funding. As Chairman Tejada said, the trolley is “County Board policy.”
Not that you need reminding, but the trolley’s poster child thus far is a $1 million “super stop” that is so super, you cannot really stay dry under it when it rains. The “super stop” is for buses now, but is one of over 20 that will be used for the trolley as well.
One point about the not-so-super bus stop that is often missed in the debate is that it took 18 months to build. If you commute on Columbia Pike, imagine if it takes 18 months to install all the necessary infrastructure for the trolley. Worse, if you own a business along the Pike, imagine how many people will want to brave the construction to visit your store during the construction.
It is no secret that I have endorsed a bipartisan group of Arlingtonians who view this trolley project as a boondoggle. Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit not only opposes the trolley, but offers real insight into the alternatives. But, no cost estimates, usage data or public concerns have been able to move the Board from its position thus far.
Unfortunately, the Board’s ongoing “trolley at all costs” approach should not surprise us.
Thanks to Frank O’Leary, we know our Board has built up a record surplus after telling us for years that it was facing “tough choices” caused by “budget shortfalls”. After spending millions of dollars in excess revenues in the closeout process on non-budgeted items each fall, they have implored us to be OK with raising our taxes the next year because there was “just no way to avoid it.”
The average Board Member has 15 years of experience spending our money in this manner and are showing no signs of stopping. Until voters change a Board Member or two, it is safe to assume the Board will see no real incentive to change its behavior.
Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.
Arlington to Update Streetcar Analysis — Arlington County has hired a consulting firm to update its analysis of the transit capacity needed for Columbia Pike and the potential return on investment of the county’s planned Columbia Pike streetcar system. The new analysis, which should be complete by December, will take into account changes in population and employment since the original analysis was done. [Arlington County]
Rosslyn Planning Halloween Film Fest — The Rosslyn Business Improvement District is planning a Halloween film festival on Saturday, Oct. 19. The festival will feature a kid-friendly Halloween film, followed by something more adult-oriented. The BID is asking the public to vote on which films they would like to see. [Survey Monkey]
Va. Senator Defeats Journalist in Spelling Bee – Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) was declared the victor in a journalists vs. lawmakers spelling bee at the National Press Club last night. Sen. Kaine won with the spelling of “nonpareil,” against runner-up Rebecca Sinderbrand, of Rosslyn-based Politico. [Twitter]
Preservation Arlington Lauds Residential Redevelopment — Preservation Arlington is lauding the redevelopment of a residential property on the western end of Washington Blvd in Arlington. About 10 years ago, the 1940s-era colonial-style home at 6315 Washington Blvd was renovated, preserving its unique architecture, while two new homes were built on the large tract of land. Thanks to “foresight and good planning,” the project prevented the stately home from becoming “just another in-fill development site.” [Preservation Arlington]
Exhibit Looks at Civil War Soldier — The Arlington Historical Society has a new exhibit highlighting the life of “everyman” soldier that was stationed in Arlington during the Civil War. About 10,000 soldiers were stationed in Arlington at any one time, compared to the population of Arlington at the time: 1,400. [Sun Gazette]
Streetcar Supporters Throw Party — About 100 people turned out at the Party for the Pike, an inaugural event organized by the pro-streetcar group Arlington Streetcar Now. The chairman of the group says he’s seeing growing support for the streetcar, especially among younger residents. [Patch]
Arlington Capital Bikeshare Video — Arlington County has produced a video highlighting the expansion of the Capital Bikeshare system in the county and encouraging more residents to use it. Arlington even offers classes for residents who need to learn how to ride a bike. [YouTube]
Arlington: Top ‘City’ For Successful, Educated, Single Women — Arlington is the top “city” in the country for women who are college graduates, who have a high income, and who are single, according to the real estate website Redfin. As an added bonus to the single, successful women, there are 6 percent more single men than women. [Redfin]
Homeless Twins Still Recovering from Assault — Two homeless, 26-year-old twins are still recovering from a vicious attack that took place outside Arlington Central Library last month. Through donations and determination, they are attempting to overcome their injuries and get their lives back on track. [Washington Post]
Pike Business Owners Waiting for Streetcar — Though it’s controversial with residents, many Columbia Pike business owners are counting on Arlington County’s plan to build a streetcar system along the corridor. Among those business owners is Adriana Torres, owner of Cafe Sazon, who recently had to take a full-time job at Home Depot to pay the business’ bills. [Washington Post]
Flickr pool photo by Lawrence Cheng Photography
The County Board approved an agreement with Fairfax County to move forward as partners in the Columbia Pike streetcar project Tuesday night, but the basic step with the already-approved transit system was again faced with opposition in the board room.
A number of speakers used the opportunity to again denounce the project. They were joined on the dais by Board member Libby Garvey, who made a motion to defer the vote until after a cost-benefit analysis could be done. Her motion died after it did not receive a second.
“This project feels so un-Arlington in its approach,” Garvey said. “We’re not quite sure what it’s going to need, what it’s going to cost… or where the money is coming from, but we’re determined to build it no matter what.”
The agreement passed Tuesday – which is expected to be approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors later this month — puts Arlington in line to pay for 80.4 percent of the planning and design phase of the project while Fairfax pays for 19.6 percent. The motion passed 4-to-1, with Garvey dissenting.
Board Chair Walter Tejada and Board member Chris Zimmerman reiterated that the streetcar project had already been approved following a public process, and the partnership agreement with Fairfax County was simply another in many steps the Board will need to approve before the streetcar can be built.
“This is essentially a routine matter to carry out a policy that’s already been established,” Zimmerman said. “Just saying a cost-benefit analysis hasn’t been done doesn’t make it true.”
The speakers came to the podium during the public comment portion of the meeting to air their grievances, which ranged from balking at the cost to accusing the County Board and County Manager Barbara Donnellan of “fraud.”
“We all know how congested Columbia Pike can get, and sadly, we remember tragedies that occurred there,” said Paul Watlington, a streetcar critic. “What I don’t understand is how we think we can have cars, bicycles, buses, school buses, and industrial vehicles all sharing lanes with a streetcar.”
Arlington was designated the lead partner in the agreement, and the Board also approved awarding a planning and design contract to AECOM for $999,131.
“I can think of several better things to spend $1,000,000 on than a trolley we don’t even know we have the money to build,” said Pike resident John Antonelli. We need to decide if we have the funds to build an expensive, maintenance intensive, and inflexible trolley system or if a rapid bus can fill the bill.”
In December, AECOM was the subject of some local intrigue after it was revealed that Zimmerman had done paid consulting work for the contractor’s Canadian division. In March he said he only made $510 from the arrangement.
Several speakers showed up in support of the streetcar project, with some saying they had bought houses along Columbia Pike once they heard of the streetcar.
“The streetcar is clearly the best option for the Pike,” Lander Allin said. “It will get the most people out of their cars and onto public transit, it will move the most people, it will do the most to spur the development that the community has decided that it wants.”
Fairfax May Be ‘Big Winner’ From Streetcar — The Columbia Pike streetcar may be an economic boon to Fairfax County. Fairfax is planning to use its portion of the future streetcar system to lure office tenants to the Skyline and Baileys Crossroads areas. Already, promise of the streetcar might be helping to sway the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move to Skyline from Ballston. [Sun Gazette]
Office Absorption Down as Sequester Takes Hold — The D.C. region, particularly Northern Virginia, is shedding office tenants. The region typically “absorbs” about 900,000 square feet of office space per quarter, but posted a negative 100,000 square foot absorption figure between April and June. Tenant downsizing and federal job losses and budget cuts are being blamed for the poor absorption figures. [Globe St]
Brink Unopposed in Upcoming Election — Arlington’s Del. Bob Brink (D) is running unopposed for reelection in November, after the Libertarian candidate he was set to face dropped out of the race. Del. Patrick Hope, Del. Alfonso Lopez and Del. Rob Krupicka, all Democrats, area facing a Libertarian, an Independent Green and and independent candidate, respectively. So far, no Republican challengers have been announced. [Sun Gazette]
Library Seeking LEGO Artists — Arlington Public Library is seeking LEGO builders ages 18 and under to help design and build LEGO structures for display at a library. [Arlington Public Library]
Flickr pool photo by Wolfkann
Beauty Pageant in Crystal City — The annual Miss United States beauty pageant is taking place at Synetic Theater in Crystal City today and tomorrow (Saturday). Single women between the ages of 20 and 29 come from 55 states and U.S. territories to compete in the pageant. [Miss United States]
Marymount Launching Baseball Program — Arlington’s Marymount University is launching a baseball program, with a team composed largely of freshmen from Northern Virginia high schools. The team will play at Bishop O’Connell High School’s baseball field. [Washington Post]
County Still Reviewing Streetcar Finance Options — Arlington County officials are still trying to decide on their preferred funding mechanism for the Columbia Pike streetcar project. The streetcar could be built and in operation as early as 2017. [Sun Gazette]
Yelp Details ‘Yuppie’ Concentration in Clarendon — The business review site Yelp has published a map that shows the concentration of certain words in reviews. In the D.C. area, the word “yuppie” has the highest concentration in Clarendon. It also shows up to a lesser degree in Ballston, Courthouse and the Columbia Pike town center area. [Yelp]
Flickr pool photo by Ddimick
A noted streetcar critic will address a meeting of the Northern Virginia Tea Party on Tuesday.
The event is scheduled from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. at Westover Branch Library (1644 N. McKinley Road). Randal O’Toole, a transportation expert at the libertarian CATO Institute, will “speak about current transportation policy issues, including the Columbia Pike streetcar.”
O’Toole wrote the book The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths: How Smart Growth Will Harm American Cities in 2001, and published a policy analysis entitled “The Great Streetcar Conspiracy” last year. The analysis says municipal streetcar systems are being encouraged by the federal government and by “engineering firms that stand to earn millions of dollars planning, designing, and building streetcar lines.”
“Streetcars are the latest urban planning fad, stimulated partly by the Obama administration’s preference for funding transportation projects that promote ‘livability’ (meaning living without automobiles) rather than mobility or cost-effective transportation,” O’Toole wrote.
“Based on 19th-century technology, the streetcar has no place in American cities today except when it functions as part of a completely self-supporting tourist line. Instead of subsidizing streetcars, cities should concentrate on basic — and modern — services such as fixing streets, coordinating traffic signals, and improving roadway safety.”
(Supporters argue that a modern streetcar system is a clean and efficient transportation solution that reduces traffic congestion and promotes economic development.)
Tuesday’s event is free and open to the public. “Extensive free parking in the evening is available at the rear of the adjacent elementary school,” according to the event invitation.
Photo via CATO Institute
Fiscal Year 2014 — which starts on July 1 and ends on June 30, 2014 – will be busy for the county’s procurement office. While residents are still debating the merits of the Crystal City and Columbia Pike streetcar systems, and while county officials regroup after being initially denied federal funding for the Pike streetcar, Arlington is moving forward with the projects by soliciting bids for engineering and construction.
Among the anticipated procurements in FY 2014, according to a presentation given to transportation industry representatives earlier this month:
- Construction of Columbia Pike multimodal project segment from S. Jefferson Street to Four Mile Run
- Program management for the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar systems
- Engineering services for the Columbia Pike streetcar
- Construction of phase 3 of the Crystal Drive two-way project, from 26th Street to 27th Street
- Construction of 15th Street extension in Crystal City
- Construction of reconfigured Clark/Bell Street in Crystal City
- General contractor for construction of the Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway
- Construction of a Crystal City Multimodal Transit Center (“Improved and expanded bus bays at Crystal City Metrorail Station; Facilities for longer distance commuter buses, local shuttles, and kiss-and-ride”)
- Design/build contract for a second elevator at the Pentagon City Metro Station
One longer-range project mentioned during the briefing but not included in the procurement list was a second entrance to the Crystal City Metro station. The entrance would be located near the intersection of Crystal Drive and 18th Street, and would, among other benefits, offer easier access to the Crystal City VRE station.
County procurement and transportation officials told industry reps that they would seek to keep the procurement process as transparent as possible, while avoiding conflicts of interest.
“We aim to be transparent,” said Arlington County Transportation Director Dennis Leach. “We want to [stimulate] competition and we want good bids for these projects.”
In response to a question from the audience, Leach noted that the county still has not settled on which type of streetcar vehicle it will use – a key decision that could impact how the streetcar system is designed and built. He said there was no time frame for making that decision.
Arlington Homeless Population Increases — Despite a decline of 2.4 percent across most of the region, Arlington’s homeless population rose by six percent between 2012 and 2013. The figures were gathered during the annual homeless census on January 30. The county’s new homeless count stands at 479 people, up from 451 the previous year. [Sun Gazette]
Streetcar Cost/Benefit Test — An article criticizing Libby Garvey’s op-ed in the Washington Post contends streetcars do indeed pass the cost/benefit test, contrary to Garvey’s thoughts. The author favors a streetcar to buses based on points such as the streetcar having a greater passenger capacity, faster rate of travel and bringing more development to the area. [Greater Greater Washington]
Raise the Roof Service Project — The Arlington Teen Network Board has teamed up with Rebuilding Together Arlington/Fairfax/Falls Church for a service project called “Raise the Roof.” Tomorrow (April 27), volunteers will begin repairing the Borromeo Housing, Inc. group house, which is a transitional home for teen moms and their children. Volunteers are collecting money to continue with the next phase of the service project, which involves a facelift of the interior and exterior of the home. Those interested in contributing can do so through the project website.
Police Seek Tips in Two Theft Incidents — The Arlington County Police Department is seeking the public’s assistance in finding suspects involved in two separate theft incidents. The first incident involved shoplifting at South Moon Under (2700 Clarendon Blvd) on March 1. Suspect descriptions are available online, along with contact information for reporting tips. The second case involves tracking down persons of interest in the theft of a victim’s wallet. The victim’s credit cards have since been used around the area. Suspect information and contact information for reporting tips for that crime can also be found on the police department website.
Arlington County officials are pressing forward with plans for a Columbia Pike streetcar system, despite the federal government’s initial rejection of the county’s funding request due to projected cost overruns.
Officials explained last night, at a County Board meeting, that the Federal Transit Administration rejected its request for $75 million in grant funding because the total project cost was estimated to exceed the $250 million — the cap for projects to receive funding under the FTA’s Small Starts program.
Though pegged by the county at $245.9 million, a contractor hired by the FTA estimated the project cost to instead be between $255.9 and $402.4 million, including contingencies, and thus ineligible for a Small Starts grant. The contractor said $310.1 million was “a most likely cost.”
County officials said the contractor’s report and a subsequent in-person meeting with senior FTA staff lead them to believe the project is still likely to receive federal funding.
“They made it very clear that their action wasn’t based on the merits of the project,” Arlington County Transportation Director Dennis Leach told the Board. “It was really that technical factor that they felt our cost estimate was likely to be somewhat higher.”
Arlington will actually be eligible to receive more than the initially-requested $75 million in federal funding if it applies under the FTA’s New Starts program. Unlike Small Starts, New Starts doesn’t have a cap on total project cost.
“If the county were to choose to reapply as a New Start, the project could qualify for more federal funding,” said Stephen Del Giudice, Arlington County Transit Bureau Chief. ”We have a high likelihood of success in addressing the goals of the project.”
“What’s clear at this point is that changes to the evaluation criteria will most likely have a positive impact on FTA’s future rating of our project,” echoed Brian Stout, the county’s federal liaison. ”We’ll continue… to work with our partners at FTA to identify federal opportunities for them to support the Columbia Pike streetcar project.”
Even before the report on the FTA’s rationale for its decision, County Board Chair Walter Tejada said the county was not abandoning plans for the streetcar.
“Moving forward with a modern streetcar is our stated policy, and that’s what we’re committed to doing,” Tejada said. “We can repeat it many times, but nothing’s going to change.”
Tejada’s vote of confidence for the project came after Libby Garvey, the lone streetcar critic on the five-member County Board, gave a PowerPoint highlighting problems with other streetcar systems around the country. News reports cited by Garvey include:
- Walking is often faster than riding streetcar in Portland (The Oregonian)
- Portland streetcar fare revenue nearly 50 percent below projections (The Oregonian)
- Tampa streetcars could require city subsidy (Tampa Tribune)
- Cincinnati streetcar facing $26 million cost overrun (Cincinnati Herald)
- Tucson streetcar operating costs 4 times initial estimate (Arizona Daily Star)
“I have not made up the articles, I have not made up the facts,” Garvey said. “These facts are facts. They’re inconvenient, but true.”
Arlington House Rededicated — Arlington House, the family home of Robert E. Lee and an iconic symbol of Arlington County, has been rededicated by the National Park Service following a six year restoration effort. The ceremony was held on Saturday, on the 152nd anniversary of Lee’s decision to lead the rebellion in the Civil War. [Sun Gazette]
County’s Bond Ratings Reaffirmed — Arlington County has had its top Aaa/AAA debt ratings reaffirmed by rating agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. The ratings will allow Arlington to borrow money at a lower interest rate. “The Aaa rating reflects the county’s strong long-term credit characteristics including a sizeable and affluent tax base, stable and carefully-managed financial operations with sound reserves, and moderate debt position with manageable future borrowing needs,” Moody’s wrote of Arlington. [Arlington County]
Garvey: Streetcars Fail Cost/Benefit Analysis — In an op-ed in the Washington Post, County Board member Libby Garvey says streetcars on Columbia Pike “are not a good investment for anyone.” Streetcars would not solve transportation challenges on the Pike, and would instead “siphon resources away from other important needs,” Garvey wrote. [Washington Post]
Arlington to Help Train Vets in IT — Arlington County has accepted a $150,000 state grant that will help train military veterans for high-demand Information Technology (IT) jobs. The grant will go to a joint Arlington/Alexandria job training program, which is expected to serve more than 50 veterans over an 18-month period. [Arlington County]
Reporter Verbally Assaulted, Mooned While Investigating Arlington Arrest — A WJLA reporter was met with hostility while looking into the case of two daycare workers arrested near Weenie Beenie for reckless endangerment of children. The two women are accused of driving seven children in a vehicle without securing them in safety restraints. The reporter discovered notices posted on the daycare’s door informing parents that it had been shut down. A woman who said she was a neighbor took down the notices with the cameras rolling, engaged in a verbal assault on the crew and then mooned the camera. [WJLA]
Trash and Hazardous Material Recycling Event on Saturday — The biannual Arlington Collection and Recycling Event (E-CARE) will take place this Saturday, April 20, at Thomas Jefferson Middle School (125 S. Old Glebe Road) from 8:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Residents are able to bring items such as hazardous materials, metals, bicycles and electronics to be recycled or disposed of. The full list of accepted items is available online.
Man Rescued After Falling onto Metro Tracks — A man fell onto the tracks at the Pentagon City Metro station last week and was rescued by two bystanders. The man reportedly walked right off the train platform while texting on his cell phone as a train was approaching. A bystander in his 70s, along with his daughter, pulled the man to safety before the train arrived. [Washington Post]
Rosslyn ABC Store Closes — The Virginia ABC store at 1731 Wilson Blvd. has closed. A Virginia ABC spokeswoman told ARLnow.com last month that the store would not be renewing its lease, which expires April 30.
Streetcar Critics Keep Watch on Financing — The Arlington County Republican Committee vows to keep watch on county officials to make sure they follow the rules when finalizing the project’s financing package. The group opposes the streetcar plan and contends the County Board will go to any lengths to secure financing in order to avoid a voter referendum on the issue. Last week, the federal government declined the joint funding application from Arlington and Fairfax counties for the project. [Sun Gazette]