Townhall Becomes Battle of Bus vs. Streetcar

(Updated at 2:10 p.m.) Four members of the Arlington County Board, along with county staff, made their best cases for streetcars in Crystal City and along Columbia Pike Wednesday night, to a largely skeptical audience that peppered them with questions about why the streetcar would be superior to buses.

The streetcar townhall meeting at Kenmore Middle School attracted a near-capacity crowd of up to 500 people, according to one county staff estimate. Based on the relative volume of applause at various points, the crowd seemed to be almost 2:1 against the streetcar.

The Board, like the audience, was divided. On one side was Chris Zimmerman, Jay Fisette, Mary Hynes, and Walter Tejada, who said the streetcar “encourages people to get out of their cars, and encourages developers to invest,” while also increasing ridership capacity.

“Streetcars are at the center of the vision for the Route 1 and Columbia Pike corridors,” Tejada said. “Buses alone cannot provide the transit capacity and capability that we need to transform these areas. By themselves, buses cannot serve the projected ridership.”

Sitting at the end of the County Board table on stage was Libby Garvey, who garnered applause as she led the charge against the streetcar and in favor of an enhanced bus system. Garvey said she was concerned about the streetcar’s price tag ($250 million for the Columbia Pike line alone) and about disruptions to small business during construction.

“I believe Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) will get as much development as a streetcar, maybe even more,” Garvey said. “You can get the same benefit for a lot less money, which means that there’s a lot of money left over to actually help small businesses. My biggest concern is [the construction process]… no matter what we do, people will not be able to get to those small businesses, and they can’t survive.”

Those points were countered by county staff, who that said studies have shown that fixed rail attracts more investment, that BRT without dedicated lanes (like it would be on the Pike) does not attract development,  and that the rail construction process will take place in small sections that will only take about a month to complete. Staff also said that a survey of Pike residents indicates that nearly 20 percent of respondents would ride a streetcar but not a bus.

Garvey was skeptical, calling into question some of the studies done that supported the streetcar option over BRT.

“The statistics that are cited, it’s really fact of fiction,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest round of applause of the evening came during the nearly 90 minute question and answer session, when a resident asked about having a referendum on the streetcar.

“If this is such a good idea, why don’t you allow the county to vote on it?” one man asked. Wild applause, and a chant of “Vote! Vote! Vote!” ensued.

Mary Hynes answered, explaining that Virginia law only allows referenda on general obligation bond issues, and the streetcar will be funded via ongoing transportation funds, not via debt.

Later, in response to statements suggesting that the county could find better things to spend money on than the streetcar, Jay Fisette said that the stream of revenue through which the streetcar is funded comes from a portion of the commercial property tax dedicated to transportation. Such funds could not be used for social programs or any other non-transportation project, Fisette said.

Garvey and the rest of the Board seemed to disagree on the fundamental question of whether the choice of streetcar vs. bus is still up for discussion.

“We’re designing a transit system, and the question right now is what type of vehicle to use,” Garvey said. “All the work we’ve done so far… will work for BRT. There are facts on both side. More facts, I think, for BRT. We could have a regional bus system, and we could have it pretty quickly at less cost.”

Hynes shook her head.

“We already have a regional bus system,” she replied. “It’s called WMATA.”

“The question for Arlington is not what vehicle to chose. In fact, we’ve chosen,” Hynes said, to exasperated gasps. “The Board has spoken. The [Federal Transit Administration] is in fact evaluating our [grant] request at this very moment.”

“There is no question and there is no vote that the Board needs to take,” Hynes added, drawing boos from streetcar critics and applause from supporters.

Another hot topic was affordable housing on Columbia Pike. Critics questioned whether the Board could meet their goal of adding affordable housing to the Pike while attracting developers and higher property values with the streetcar. One man asked about rising rents, saying the Board is too concerned about “chickens in backyards and million dollar bus stops,” and not concerned enough about the fact that “the rent is too damn high.”

Tejada said the streetcar will “help keep the Pike affordable and diverse,” by leveraging new development on the Pike to create and fund new dedicated affordable housing units. Most affordable housing on the Pike is currently market rate affordable; Board members said those affordable apartments will inevitably be renovated and become less affordable if nothing is done.

“This is Arlington’s most ambitious affordable housing initiative,” Tejada said. “The streetcar is a tool to help us preserve and create affordable housing along Columbia Pike.”

“It’s not like we can keep all this affordable housing if we do nothing,” Board member Chris Zimmerman said. “Legally, rent control in Virginia is not an option.”

Fisette bristled at a speaker’s suggestion that the Board isn’t concerned about affordable housing.

“If there’s one jurisdiction that has the most commitment to affordable housing in the Commonwealth of Virginia, hands down it’s Arlington County,” he said.

Garvey was, again, skeptical about the affordable housing plan.

“I don’t think we can afford the streetcar and affordable housing at the same time,” she said.

(Arlington’s share of the $250 million Pike streetcar project cost is expected to be $105 million, with other funding from Fairfax County, the state, and the federal government — that is, if Arlington’s federal grant application is approved.)

Going along with the the topic of transportation funding, one resident questioned Zimmerman on his consulting work with the construction, design and transportation conglomerate AECOM. As he did when the issue grew heated in December, Zimmerman stated he had previously disclosed his work with AECOM and there was no conflict of interest. He added that he only made $510 from AECOM last year.

Another topic addressed at the townhall was traffic accidents. Some speakers said they were concerned that accidents on the Pike could block the streetcar, disrupting riders’ commutes and rendering the service unreliable.

“If there’s a fender bender on the road, you’re just sitting there,” Garvey said in agreement. “In fact, you might be getting off and onto the bus.”

Staff said that there will be an “emergency response” system in place that will clear accidents from the streetcar path as quickly as possible. They added that streetcars will have battery backup systems, to clear intersections in the event of a power outage, and that broken-down streetcars can be coupled with and pushed by other streetcars.

At least one Columbia Pike business owner turned out to support the streetcar. Adriana Torres of Cafe Sazon (4704 Columbia Pike ) said that businesses on the Pike need a boost, and the streetcar will provide that boost.

“I’m actually surprised more of you aren’t supporting the streetcar,” she said. “I’ve been on Columbia Pike for about two years, and I’ve seen businesses fail left and right. It’s because we don’t have the customers. [The streetcar] is something we need. I don’t see businesses staying on Columbia Pike if something isn’t improved.”

The meeting remained relatively respectful, in spite of some boos and shouts. It ended on a more disruptive note, with one man shouting that the Board did not allow enough dissenting opinion at the meeting.