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County Board to Consider Private-Public Streetcar Partnership

by ARLnow.com November 28, 2012 at 9:35 am 6,297 32 Comments

The Arlington County Board is considering options for having a private company design, build and run all or part of its planned streetcar system.

Earlier this month, the Board held a work session with officials from other North American transit agencies who spoke of their experience with public-private partnerships for light rail systems. By and large, said Board member and leading streetcar supporter Chris Zimmerman, those experiences were positive.

A public-private partnership “can save time and money,” he told ARLnow.com. “We’re very seriously looking at the options.”

At the Nov. 15 work session, transit officials from Ottawa  Denver, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City discussed both the positives and the risks, challenges and things didn’t work with their private partnerships. Such a partnership involves a contract between the local government and a private entity, with the company agreeing to design, build, operate and sometimes even finance the project — to the government’s specifications — in exchange for set payments.

The benefit for the public is that the company handles all the logistics — engineering, procurement, construction, etc. — and often can get more done with less money. The private company also has more flexibility to innovate and to accomplish goals.

In exchange for a long-term (30+ year) contract for operating the light rail system, the company agrees to certain performance benchmarks.  The company and the government share some of the inherent risks in the project, instead of the government assuming all risk, like in a publicly-built system. In the end, the public retains ownership of the system.

“It’s pretty clear if you look around the world and increasingly around the county that things are moving that way,” Zimmerman said. He cited the experience of Vancouver, which was able to build a two-track light rail system through a public-private partnership for the same cost as it had budgeted to build a one-track system on its own.

Zimmerman said a public-private partnership is especially attractive for the county’s planned Crystal City streetcar, which will be funded using a TIF — tax increment financing, derived from gains in commercial real estate values in Crystal City.

“[Crystal City] might be very well poised for this kind of approach,” he said.

It’s possible that the Columbia Pike streetcar could be built using a public-private partnership, but it’s less likely since the county is seeking federal funds for the project and since it is further along in the process.

Zimmerman said the county hopes to have the Columbia Pike streetcar up and running sometime between 2017 and 2018, and the Crystal City streetcar operating between 2018 and 2019. The construction process for each will take about two years.

At its meeting Tuesday night, the County Board deferred consideration of a measure that would allow the county to pursue public-private partnerships under a 1995 Virginia law. The Board will take the matter back up at its December meeting, after Board members Libby Garvey and Walter Tejada expressed some reservations about the method by which the county will award such contracts.

Also on Tuesday, Board Chair Mary Hynes said the county expects to hear back from the Federal Transit Administration regarding federal funding for the Columbia Pike streetcar at some point in the first half of 2013. Zimmerman said he’s reasonably confident the project will move on the the next stage of the FTA’s funding process, but was concerned that federal funds might be hard to come by in light of proposed budget cuts.

“We think the project should score pretty well using the criteria that the federal government is using,” he said. “Obviously we’d be more confident if there was more funding.”

  • Westover

    We’ve taken the streetcar out to the woodshed enough times. I’m more interested in this Community Energy Plan the government approved last night.

    • Charles

      You can bet that the people who claim the street cars will bring more shoppers, reduce congestion, or make money for the county would NEVER AGREE to re-pay the funds personally if the system fails to break even and taxpayers have to begin paying for this boondoogle. It’s too easy for some people to lie using other people’s money, and for fools (County board; many voters) to believe them.

  • davidpotomacyard

    Please forgive me, but can anybody answer this. The Crystal City Potmac Yard Transit Improvements program was initially a phased program with BRT planned to be already under construction now, with conversion to streetcars. In its dispute with Alexandria, has Arlington completely stopped the plan for BRT down Crystal Drive to focus exclusively on streetcar? The http://ccpytransit.com/ website hasn’t been updated in 10 months after completing a comprehensive operations plan. Is all that work dead?

    • Chris Slatt

      It’s all still moving forward. Arlington and Alexandria continue moving forward on the transitway with buses. Arlington will move forward on their own with a Streetcar conversion with Alexandria (in theory) following later on once they’ve paid for the Potomac Yard Metro. Even after Streetcar “conversion”, buses would continue to run on the transitway into Alexandria so a “one seat ride” would still be possible. Most of the updates and recent info has moved here:

  • MrMeow

    This streetcar is seriously one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard and it shows how good of an insight the Simpsons provides into life in this country.

    • Bob

      I don’t care how they finance this thing but

  • Becoming Indifferent

    Great, now we can have the government AND a private entity wasting our money.

  • Garden City

    My concern with these public-private agreements is that they generally guarantee some rate of return to the private entity. Should the project not generate the minimum required return, the taxpayer is generally on the hook to the private entity to make up the difference.

    • Zimbo

      Just as long as it’s not a foreign company.

    • bemused bystander

      The taxpayer and/or the user. Fares will go up just as tolls have gone up on the Greenway. Would you need an EZ-Pass to ride the streetcar? How about variable rates at rush hour depending on how crowded the car becomes?

      Give me public projects with some accountability rather than that.

  • DB

    I feel that the private-public partnership is a good idea given the financial issues/burden that Arlington County will be facing and the overall price tag of this project. I’m all for the trolley but whoa-baby, she ain’t cheap!

  • Mrmeow

    Kind of reminds me how all those speed cams in DC and MD are a public-private partnership.

  • Chuck Smith

    Just wondering, did the name Vornado come up in this philosophical discussion of 3P’s?

    I’m only asking since they already offered to pay for the Crystal City line last week.

  • An Idea

    Maybe some of the small businesses promoting prostitution along Columbia Pike might be interested in operating the street car and could combine the businesses.

  • Taylor

    Transportation projects should be publicly owned & operated. Experience has shown that these so-called “partnerships” are usually very lopsided to the private sector’s interest, and the public loses control of what should be a public good.

    It’s disappointing to see Arlington going down this route.

  • Brian K

    This usually ends up Public Cost, Private Profit.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the Board’s avid enthusiasists of the street car have been promised a huge paycheck at the end of their tenure form some of these private ‘partners’.


  • DCBuff

    ArlCo’s version of PPP? Public ArlCo raises taxes on private citizens and calls it a partnership. 2013 will be a watershed year, with Tejada as board chair his puppetmaster Zimmie will be pushing to spend and spend again. And, on the marquee projects like the trolley or the A-sphere, the rest of the board hardly shows restraint.

    • Rusty Shackleford

      This is why I don’t vote for Democrats for the Arlington County Board. The only “opposition” this project has faced from the Board is Libby Garvey’s cowardly abstention. The Board needs someone, anyone, to push back on the insular groupthink that keeps this thing going.

    • Josh S

      A truly dangerous attitude to voice. I guess internet anonymity gives you the cover to say things like that, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have an internal guide, does it?

      • Ed

        Truly dangerous??? Good lord, talk about internet anonymity letting people run off at the mouth.

  • Josh S

    I agree with those who are nervous about how the risks and rewards are shared between private and public sector partners. It seems that since the streetcar is to be built in an existing public road, the county and its residents are already shouldering a fairly large risk. Any agreement with a private sector company should include significant performance requirements in order to continue to get paid – if on-time performance dips below a certain threshold, for example, then reduced payments that month or whatever.
    The experience of other urban areas in the United States is certainly relevant, but it seems to me the best places we should be consulting with are places like Germany, Japan or Switzerland, where transportation systems have legendary punctuality and move massive quantities of people. How do they do it?

    • Try thinking

      Given that it would travel in a shared ROW, how in the world do you think a company will agree to on-time performance benchmarks?

      • Josh S

        I guess the same way that WMATA is held to on-time performance benchmarks. And by the way, speaking of WMATA, since they moved the 16Y to Metro Extra back in late September, performance has improved significantly. So bravo to them for that.

        A bus or a streetcar is far less useful to people if it doesn’t arrive reliably on time or at least regularly. The standards needn’t be excessively stringent, but some standards should exist if a private company would actually be operating the vehicles.

        • Try again

          You completely miss the point. First, just who holds Metro to time benchmarks? Second, what financial penalties / incentives are contractually tied to Metros on-time performance.

        • YTK

          16Y — an emphatic YES! 16 F- Bronx cheer

  • Sleeves

    If this was an improvement project to a major thoroughfare in North Arlington it would have been completed in the best manner with no regard for cost a long time ago.

  • Sam the Cat

    I am most concerned with the pictorial depiction of the Trolley rolling up behind what appears to be a Buick LaSabre in full stealth mode. This will have only one outcome – the Trolley will flip over causing traffic to back up for miles.

  • notrolley

    The streetcar is a relic that should not be revived. The PPP is absurd. I bet companies are chomping at the bit to dip into the taxpayers pockets. The skyline area that was once full of federal employees is not so any longer so no need for a streetcar.

    • LEBELE

      Suggest a visit to Charlotte. The new light rail system is a roaring success there.

      I remember NYC street cars of the 1950s/early ’60s. They still exist in New Orleans. The modern light rail systems are a completely different mode of transit — only the rails are similar. The rolling stock is fast, sleek, efficient.

      • JnA

        And lethal to bicyclists…

  • ID

    I cannot wait for the rockets that they will put on the streetcars to make them go extra fast

  • Charles D. Smith, Esq.

    …I’ve looked at Requests for Proposals issed by numerous jurisdictions and the RFPs Arlington has issued for private services (especially in transit) are poorly written. For example, Fairfax will require the names and resumes of the people who will be managing the contract. Arlington does not. Giving contractor’s easy outs and almost no accountability is what has given “contracting out” a bad name. Some things might be done better by the private sector, but if you give them poor instructions, then the results will be unsatisfying.


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