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Board Streetcar Vote Again Sparks Controversy

Columbia Pike streetcar renderingThe 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 cost of the Columbia Pike streetcar project is expected to be at least $250 million. The county is still mulling ways to pay for it, after its initial federal grant request was denied.

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.”

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