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The Right Note: State of Columbia Pike

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Mark KellyChairman Jay Fisette delivered a state of the county address at the annual Arlington Chamber of Commerce event this week. Job No. 1 for the chairman — tell everyone how great the Columbia Pike trolley will be.

Knowing words from the three supporters still on the County Board may not be enough to turn public opinion, so the Board will also ramp up a $650,000 ad campaign for the unpopular project. Any number of other projects in the County could be paid for with that money, as well as with the remainder of the $7-8 million contract. Or, they could have cut taxes and left that money in the local economy.

In his speech, Fisette claimed that running a trolley line down existing lanes of the Pike will not contribute to traffic congestion or accidents more than a bus or another car. He also pivoted to creating new affordable housing stock as an important rationale for the trolley.

A few years back, the Board made redeveloping Columbia Pike a priority. They made a part of that plan the form based code. Under the form based code, developers can essentially build without negotiating with the county on a site plan, provided they stay within the bounds of the code.

But, the Columbia Pike corridor is home to a high percentage of the most market-rate affordable housing in the county. This Board-driven redevelopment, happening now without the trolley in place, will gradually drive that market-rate affordable housing out of the county.

So, now the Board believes they must make replacing that housing stock a priority. The trolley, Fisette claims, will incentivize developers to work outside the form based code for additional density in exchange for creating affordable housing. Imagine Clarendon on the Pike. Of course, many disagree with Fisette’s assessment that additional density will make a substantial difference in attracting developers who will opt to pursue it.

Regardless of the disagreements over the merits of the Fisette plan, if implemented, we will have come full circle. The Board adds to the affordable housing shortage. Then the Board commits to spending taxpayer dollars to fix said crisis. And, in so doing, the Board sticks Arlingtonians with a long-term commitment to subsidizing the operations of a trolley line, over and above the additional construction costs. And worse, it will not substantially improve the ability to move people over improved bus service, which can be done at a fraction of the cost.

Fisette clearly disagrees on the efficacy of the improved bus service. “No possible bus system can handle that ridership growth,” he said. At the same time, the trolley system cannot handle the increased ridership on its own either. Buses will continue to run up and down the Pike with the trolleys. The half-billion price tag does not replace buses along the Pike, it would merely supplement them.

The bottom line — the trolley does not have an image problem that can be corrected with some slick advertising campaign or speeches by the chairman.

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

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