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Progressive Voice: Why I Support Arlington’s Streetcar

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

Terry SavelaThe concerns raised regarding Arlington’s streetcar program remind me of my own journey from streetcar skeptic to streetcar supporter.

As a planning commissioner for the County from 2002 and 2012 and as a transportation commissioner for part of that time, I participated in the development and review of the long-range plans for Columbia Pike and Crystal City and the eventual selection of the streetcar as the preferred option for improving transit services.

The County’s path to choosing the streetcar project rather than enhanced bus service was not a short, straight line. The process included:

  • a progression of public planning charrettes, community meetings, public task forces and public hearings supplemented by surveys and other forms of outreach to gather public opinions;
  • professional working groups involving state and local agencies, expert contractors and WMATA; and
  • both internal and contracted studies on financing options, economic development impacts, engineering options, right-of-way acquisitions, and impacts on neighborhoods, businesses, affordable housing, and historic resources.

At each step along the way, transportation and economic development experts, citizen advisory groups, and the County Board asked tough questions and identified gaps in information and analysis, leading to additional work and public review.

In keeping with “The Arlington Way,” the County Board listened to the questions and objections raised, weighed the merits of the arguments in support of each alternative, and unanimously agreed that the streetcar was the best method for achieving and balancing Arlington’s various goals.

While we can always identify more questions and raise more objections, we must eventually, on any major project, reach a point where the information gathered is deemed sufficient, a decision is made, and we move forward.

That said, here are a few of the criticisms I considered along the way to becoming a streetcar adherent.

First, the streetcar requires a fixed rail infrastructure that does not permit routes to be changed. I believe the benefits of a light rail approach offset this concern. The “guarantee” offered by fixed light rail is essential to building momentum for private investment according to economic development and real estate professionals. This private development will generate additional demand for the streetcar as well as tax revenue needed to support our schools, parks, libraries, human services programs, and maintenance of basic infrastructure. We can still add transit services as demand for additional routes materializes.

Second, a streetcar operating in a mixed-use travel lane is sub-optimal. Having separate dedicated lanes is optimal for any form of transit. However, the Columbia Pike community identified a range of goals that work to limit street width — wider sidewalks, traffic calming, and the preservation of historic buildings.

Combined with limitations imposed by private property lines and VDOT’s requirement that all travel lanes be maintained, widening Columbia Pike to accommodate dedicated lanes is not feasible. Planners and civil engineers will continue their work on ensuring success of the shared use approach.

Recently, I traveled to Milan, Italy, and witnessed a diverse range of commuters and residents using the shared streetcar lanes on very busy city streets. Cyclists of all ages and abilities maneuvered along the streetcar tracks alongside scooters, motorcycles, taxis, articulated buses, and all manner of vehicles.  There will undoubtedly be a learning curve for drivers, but the Italians proved to me that shared use will work in a busy urban environment.

Third, the enhanced bus service provides a similar service at a much lower cost. This claim, raised during the planning process, did not withstand scrutiny. The streetcar offers much higher ridership capacity and the return-on-investment analysis indicated that the economic benefits of the streetcar far exceeded those expected from enhanced bus service. Two such studies performed by outside consultants in 2012 and 2014 showed this remains the case. In combination with the financing plan outlined by the County Manager, the choice of streetcar over enhanced bus service is fiscally responsible.

The implementation of Arlington’s streetcar is an important cog in a regional transit system. It will not be without issues. No project of its size is perfect from Day One. Construction will mean some temporary inconvenience for road users. Nevertheless, our County’s history of exemplary urban planning, along with our citizens’ involvement in their government, gives me confidence that the streetcar will be every bit as effective in meeting long-term transit goals as Metro has been for other transit corridors in our County.

Terry Savela has lived in Arlington since 1985 and served as a County Planning Commissioner, Transportation Commissioner, and as the vice chair of the Crystal City Task Force.

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