Progressive Voice: Build the Streetcar

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Juliet HiznayIn 1992, I began my morning commute crossing a vast asphalt automotive lot to the Clarendon Metro. This was before Whole Foods, Starbucks, or the Apple Store. Instead, I was treated to gritty wind blowing in my face. There was not much of interest to young people in Clarendon then, nor did residents have many dining and shopping options within walking distance.

But there was a subway station.

Today, Clarendon is a thriving area and the Orange Line helps move tens of thousands of people daily in Arlington and to points around the region.

We have other corridors in Arlington that need transit solutions to reach their potential. Columbia Pike is one such corridor, and it needs a healthier business environment to support a stronger Arlington.

Arlington residents expect a high level of services — excellent schools, public safety, parks and recreation, affordable housing, quality health care options. They also want to ensure lower residential real estate taxes than other jurisdictions.

We can do this only by keeping our economic engine humming. Arlington’s commercial tax base pays half the cost of our services, a far higher percentage than most other places.

We cannot maintain our services if we ignore infrastructure required for economic growth: our transportation system.

Now, more than ever, we need long-term planning and investment to ensure Arlington’s economic vitality. We need to do what is required to attract employers to our County and offset cuts to federal and military jobs, vacant commercial space, and downsized federal agencies.

There is also increasingly vigorous competition as reflected in the National Science Foundation soon departing for Alexandria. Meanwhile, the Silver Line is poised to open. Tysons Corner will attract residents and additional businesses in response to its new transit offerings.

Arlington needs to invest in more and better transit options to attract and retain the businesses that provide our commercial tax revenue, as well as workers who spend money without demanding much in the way of County services.

On Columbia Pike and Route 1, this means a streetcar system. The streetcar will more than pay for itself over time through economic vitality. Such a system will also help us avoid haphazard development while preserving surrounding neighborhoods, retaining affordable housing and improving open space.

What happens if we don’t build the streetcar? The opportunity cost would be tremendous. We will lose out on bringing employers to Columbia Pike and Route 1. We will lose the economic activity that raises revenues needed to build schools and meet other core needs across Arlington.

Why do we need fixed rail? It offers permanence and is far more attractive to riders than other options. Entrepreneurs know this, and they respond by investing. The promised streetcar has already brought new construction and retail activity to the east end of the Pike, with the expectation that a streetcar system will drive demand and business success. East end residents see flickers of light: Columbia Pike as a destination.

So far, this is great, but it could be snuffed out easily. With the streetcar project under threat, and concern about delays in construction, this private investment may end.

By contrast, enhanced bus service cannot meet projected ridership needs, much less our economic needs. Articulated buses (buses with accordion-like centers) are wider and longer but carry fewer passengers and offer less comfortable rides.

Bus systems also have higher long term costs than a streetcar system. Articulated buses require more operators and, due to their heavier weight, concrete roadway would have to be poured and frequently replaced.

Those who suggest improving Pike transit is a question of simply purchasing a fleet of buses are misleading Pike residents and Arlington voters.

There are no “easy” or “cheap” solutions for what is needed: capacity, ridership and strong economic development.  Let’s make sure that our tax dollars are spent wisely:  in a way that will spur economic growth and help Arlington manage its transportation needs for decades to come.

No more waiting; it is time to build the streetcar.

Juliet Hiznay is an attorney in private practice, president of the board of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization and previously served on the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission for Arlington County.

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