Press Club

The Right Note: Questions to Ask at the Trolley Forum

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column by published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Mark KellyNext Wednesday evening, March 27, our County Board will tell us how they plan to move the Columbia Pike streetcar plan forward. The Board is refusing to allow for a full vetting of opposing views, and it remains to be seen if they will take unscripted questions. If you can get the microphone, here are some things you should question:

1) Will there be a dedicated lane for the trolley?

The answer, of course, is no. So, if a trolley breaks down during rush hour it will block traffic and cannot simply be moved onto a side street. Conversely, if a car breaks down in the trolley lane, the trolley cannot move around it.

2) Will buses still run on Columbia Pike?

Yes. The trolley will not replace buses altogether. In fact, if you want to go directly to the Pentagon, a bus will likely be your better choice. And, during rush hour, trolleys will likely be slowed by buses in front of them.

3) Are trolleys safe?

This is an open question. There are reports of these vehicles being knocked 25 feet off its rails by a vehicle the size of a small SUV.

4) Why did the county quickly move to consider a public-private partnership approach?

Most likely to avoid a public vote on a bond. The Board has indicated zero willingness to put this $250 million (a low estimate) project before the voters in any way, shape, or form. Under the public-private partnership model, the Board can allow private entities to put together the financing and avoid a public vote on a bond altogether. In exchange, Arlington would contribute a hefty down payment and sign a long-term contract to pay for the rest.

5) Why did the County Board never debate the merits of using bigger buses that have multiple entry doors and the ability to have curb level entry?

These buses could be done at approximately one-fifth the cost. In fact, if you look at the 2012 study on this very question, the buses would cost $193.2 million less up front, and $2.19 million less per year less for an ongoing annual subsidy. The same study estimates that just four percent more people would ride the trolley versus the bus. If you do a quick estimate, that means each additional rider costs the taxpayers about $175,000 up front, and $2,000 more per year.

There are many other questions that could be asked, from the likelihood of cost overruns, to the impact on existing businesses on the Pike, to playing hide the ball on a recent FOIA request, to bicycle safety, to the impact of Alexandria’s decision to scrap its light rail plans.

Even if the Board does not intend to take public input, those with an interest in the outcome should come to Kenmore Middle School and make their presence known.

Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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