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Bright hopes, some obstacles for Northern Virginia streetcars

Streetcar supporters in Northern Virginia hope to see streetcar lines traversing many of Northern Virginia's cities and counties, linking housing to employment centers within and across jurisdictions, often retracing routes operated decades ago.

A modern streetcar. Photo from Arlington County.

To get streetcars across boundaries, however, the many local governments must coordinate their plans and deal with differences in their abilities to fund projects.

The Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition's top priority this year is supporting Arlington's plans for the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar lines. It also will encourage other cities and counties to consider streetcar options.

Arlington has steadfastly supported a vision of smart growth around transit nodes and multimodal transportation options for a great many years. Thanks to this consistency, their work has paid off in positioning Arlington as a good place to live and work.

By selecting streetcar rather than some variety of enhanced bus service, Arlington is reinforcing its past planning efforts by providing investors and developers along the two corridors with the certainty that only a commitment to a fixed alignment can give.

Arlington and Fairfax counties worked together on plans for high-capacity transit along Columbia Pike for several years, and in July 2012 voted to select streetcar as the preferred option for Columbia Pike and apply for federal funding. Arlington also plans a streetcar line for Crystal City to connect with the Columbia Pike line.

The 5 mile long Columbia Pike line, as currently planned, will cross into Fairfax County, terminating at Skyline. The 2½ mile long Crystal City line, on the other hand, will terminate at Four Mile Run, the boundary between Arlington and Alexandria.

Proposed streetcar alignments in Arlington. Image from Arlington County.

Meanwhile, Alexandria has been studying transit for Route 1 and the Beauregard/Van Dorn transit corridors. NVSC wants to ensure no decisions would preclude using streetcars in those areas.

NVSC also will encourage Fairfax County to expand its streetcar lines beyond Skyline, going either toward Falls Church along Route 7, toward Northern Virginia Community College and the Mark Center east of Skyline, or along Route 1 south of Alexandria. Finally, ongoing studies in various jurisdictions could identify additional corridors suitable for streetcars.

Leaders emphasize need for transit, desire to coordinate

In November, the Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition hosted a public meeting where leaders from Arlington, Fairfax County, Alexandria, and Falls Church discussed, in a spirited but positive manner, regional cooperation in planning high-capacity transit.

They saw Northern Virginia's future as multimodal, with mixed uses around transit stations. Then-Arlington Board Chair Mary Hynes noted that Virginia commuters to DC must cross Arlington. Without its multi-modal strategy, she said, the county would "become a parking lot."

All of the officials emphasized that the jurisdictions want work together, and have coordinated in many ways. However, due to differences in funds available for transit and each jurisdiction's priorities, it has not always been possible to think regionally in spite of best intentions.

Arlington has been more successful at raising funds for transportation capital projects than its neighbors, partially due to its more balanced ratio of commercial to residential property and its commercial add-on tax for transportation.

Paul Smedberg, a member of the Alexandria City Council, spoke of the need for a streetcar connection to the BRAC-133 building at Mark Center. Fairfax Supervisor Penny Gross said that although extensions to the Columbia Pike line are desirable, it was important to get the first segment built rather than bogging down the whole process by considering alternatives.

Former Falls Church City Council member Dan Maller, standing in for Vice-Mayor David Snyder, noted that he was eager to work with Fairfax on a Route 7 extension to Falls Church. Somewhat reassuringly, Alexandrians learned that they would have continuous transit options to get from their city to Arlington without transferring at Four Mile Run—although presently these are bus options rather than streetcar options.

As local and regional plans for high-capacity transit develop, decision-makers must think long-term and regionally. Not every transit route is suitable for streetcars, but where cities and counties want environmentally-sound, reliable, clean transportation that also contributes to local economic development, they should consider streetcar lines and ensure they can interoperate across jurisdictional boundaries now and in the future.

Agnès Artemel became interested in revitalizing cities after growing up in France and Germany, where livable and walkable have always been the norm. She is a founder of the Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition and Alexandrians Delivering smart growth Around Metro (ADAM). Her professional focus is on market and feasibility studies, real estate development approvals, and economic development partnerships. Agnès has a Masters in urban and regional planning. 


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I hope we can focus on corridors where seperate ROW is possible - in such corridors rail has greater comparative advantage over articulated buses, and that should ease some of the modal choice angst that has plagued PikeRail.

I agree that one of the key priorities is ensuring that layouts selected for BRT routes, especially where significant capital is involved, do not preclude conversion to rail should that become desirable in the future.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 16, 2013 10:28 am • linkreport

Dumb question: will the cars they intend to buy in Arlington be compatible with the tracks in DC and vice versa?

by goldfish on Jan 16, 2013 10:31 am • linkreport

It would seem very likely. All rail equipment in the US is the same gauge, with the exception of a few specialized narrow gauge lines. This is why the DC streetcars can be stored at the Metro Greenbelt yard. So tracks aren't an issue, but that doesn't mean that power and other systems will be compatible. Arlington's streetcars may not support whatever in-ground power DC goes with, if and when they do, for example.

by Distantantennas on Jan 16, 2013 10:44 am • linkreport

@ AWalkerInTheCity

Well stated. Separate RoW is important and can avoid battles with VDOT. I also think BRT should be developed whenever possible with separate RoW that could reasonably be converted to rail. Congressman Frank Wolf originally proposed to build BRT on the Silver Line with separate RoW that could, as Tysons and the Dulles Corridor grew, be converted to rail. While people can debate that one, had the approach been taken, we'd have had better transit in the area for several years now and, at much less cost.

by TMT on Jan 16, 2013 11:00 am • linkreport

I would love to see a streetcar extend from Arlington, through Alexandria, following Route 1, and eventually terminating at Fort Belvoir. It would provide a connection between the base and central DC (especially if it was correctly planned and connected with the Yellow line somewhere ... Huntington, Eisenhower, King, or Braddock) and help to revitalize the Rt. 1 corridor.

by Thad on Jan 16, 2013 11:07 am • linkreport

@TMT - I'm not saying I'm pro or con anything particular on the silver line, (I think phase 1 through Tysons makes a ton of sense.. I think phase 2 would make more sense if it left the ROW for Reston, but that's important for a feeder to Tysons) but, except for Tysons the Dulles Toll Road already exists as a pretty limited ROW with what I would expect from a striped down BRT.

Not there by any stretch, but very quick and direct service from Herndon-Monroe and RTC to WCF. Fairfax connector even added (the very frequent) 981 recently which connects the airport, Herndon, Reston, and Tysons, though I've never seen more than a few people on that bus.

by RyanD on Jan 16, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport


I'm nit-picking but that's not entirely true. PATransit in Pittsburgh and SEPTA in Philadelphia (as well as New Orleans trolleys) use a broad Pennsylvania Trolley Gauge, Toronto uses its own gauge, and BART uses the very broad Indian Gauge for some strange reason.

Nerd out.

...that said, the Arlington and DC Trolleys are almost certain to use 4ft 8.5 in standard gauge. The stumbling block would be if the power systems were compatible or not.

by Sayne on Jan 16, 2013 11:44 am • linkreport

I've been out nerded. Thanks for setting me straight. :)

by Distantantennas on Jan 16, 2013 11:48 am • linkreport

@ RyanD

Keep in mind that the Silver Line did not meet federal funding guidelines. The benefits could not outweigh the costs. Wolf's proposal would have received at least 50% funding and would have been operating years ago.

When the FTA changed its funding guidelines some years ago, then-Senator John Warner got legislation passed that grandfathered the Silver Line under the old, weaker standards. But the project could not even pass the old standards for federal funding. Only after massive bi-partisan lobbying, did the FTA "surrender" and agree to fund Phase I of Dulles Rail.

Reasonable people can debate the value of the Silver Line, but all should agree/admit its funding by the feds is a prime example of crony capitalism at its worst. The Silver Line is about permitting a few selected landowners to make hundreds of millions of dollars by getting increased density. Fortunately, Fairfax County limited the density to the immediate station areas and has adopted a funding plan requiring landowners to pay 59.5% of the non-rail transportation infrastructure costs.

My point is not to argue the pros and cons of Dulles Rail or the revised Tysons Plan. That's water under the bridge. We must now work to make both rail and redevelopment at Tysons work for everyone's benefit. But I do think we also all need to remember the crony capitalism part. Crony capitalism occurs with all too much regularity (Dulles Rail, the "Outer Beltway"), IMO.

by TMT on Jan 16, 2013 11:52 am • linkreport

My understanding is that this is pretty back burner for Alexandria. They are putting everything into getting a new Metro station which kind of makes sense to me in terms of regional priority. I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't take another 5 years before they seriously looked into the streetcars. I think Arlington is pretty much going ahead with their stretch without Alexandria's input which is telling.

by Alan B. on Jan 16, 2013 11:55 am • linkreport

You are right Alan B. The Potomac Yard metro station is much more important that streetcar at the moment. Hopefully the dedicated BRT lanes being built in the US 1 median can be upgraded to allow streetcar should the city pursue that in the future and hopefully the (relatively) new bridge over Metro and CSX tracks can accommodate streetcar without much alteration.

by Allan F on Jan 16, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

I encourage everyone to get the facts about the Columbia Pike Streetcar project. The County has never done an apples to apples cost benefit analysis comparing the proposed streetcar to a modern BRT system, yet the streetcar will costs three times as much.

by Arlingtonian for Sensible Transit on Jan 16, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

@ Arlingtonian for "sensible" transit.

You really think that Arlington would take away 1 travel lane in each direction on Columbia Pike for true BRT? I recommend you read the EE/AA from last May where transportation engineers (you know people whose jobs this is ) have shown that you cannot actually fit any more buses on the pike during rush hour without slowing down the whole system. Hence you need larger vehicles like streetcars. Oh and also they do a whole cost analysis too so feel free to educate yourself.

by Chris R on Jan 16, 2013 2:04 pm • linkreport

Unless BRT runs in its own lane then its not actually BRT. If you're going to build your own lane then you might as well lay down rails and get the higher capacity streetcar.

by drumz on Jan 16, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

I'd much rather have BRT on a dedicated ROW than a streetcar that's stuck in the same traffic as every other vehicle.

We must now work to make both rail and redevelopment at Tysons work for everyone's benefit.

I think the key is to concentrate future redevelopment and infrastructure in and around Tysons to get the most out of the Tysons investments. I think a key part of that is providing more transit options for getting to Tysons, and big part of that is BRT/Lightrail on 7 SE of Tysons. Route 7 is already Virginia's most important commercial corridor, so it really should have some kind of high capacity transit.

by Falls Church on Jan 16, 2013 2:20 pm • linkreport


If you build the dedicated lane, you can always start with BRT and then progress to rail after the buses wear out. You don't necessarily need the capacity of rail from the start.

by Falls Church on Jan 16, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

Using a streetcar or BRT down the US1 corridor to Ft. Belvoir is one of the better ideas I have heard in a while.

by movement on Jan 16, 2013 2:26 pm • linkreport

Falls Church,

I'll give you that but at least specific to the Columbia Pike Streetcar any deflections by opponents (that I've seen) to say we really need BRT are being disingenuous because they generally ignore the separated lane element.

My preference would be full blown light rail but since we really only get to choose between a streetcar and maybe some articulated buses I think the choice is clear.

by drumz on Jan 16, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

However, if Alexandria's transit corridor studies from last year are any indication, a stteetcar or BRT through Old Town just isn't going to happen. Old Town residents threw a HUGE stink, and the end result was that the city council voted to terminate the Route 1 transit corridor at Braddock Rd Metro instead of the previously proposed King St Metro or any possible extension south across the Beltway. Residents along West St and Patrick/Henry Sts (Rt 1 thru Old Town) don't even want buses along their streets, so heavy is the opposition.

Our best (only?) hope for better transit along Route 1 in Fairfax County is to tie it into Huntington Metro. Thr political climate just won't allow it to continue through Old Town.

by Froggie on Jan 16, 2013 2:37 pm • linkreport

Falls Church,

Interesting comments on Route 7. Table 7 of the Tysons Plan calls for widening Route 7 between the Beltway and the City of Falls Church from 4 to 6 lanes. I'm not aware of any serious proposal to add BRT or a trolley line. I would respectfully disagree that Route 7 is "Virginia's most important commercial corridor." I've never heard that comment in countless meetings about Tysons. Rather, I would suggest the Dulles Toll Road corridor, ranging from Tysons to the Airport and then into Ashburn in Loudoun is more often regarded as the most important commercial corridor by most Fairfax and State decision-makers. I would include parts of Reston, Herndon and Loudoun County (near and around Route 28) as part of the corridor.

I am not trying to suggest better transit on Route 7 is not appropriate. It's just that the area never seemed to be discussed as being important to Tysons and the Dulles Corridor's success. I don't think the area will attract significant resources from the Tysons redevelopment.

by TMT on Jan 16, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

@Arlingtonian: an apples-to-apples comparison will include an evaluation of impacts on real estate values and, by extension, tax base. The expected effects on property values of the DC streetcar have been at the center of the case for streetcars there:">

While a true BRT with a dedicated ROW may move people at a similar speed to a streetcar, it won't move as many people, and it most definitely won't produce the same impacts on real estate.

@Falls Church: While I agree that you can start with BRT and put in rail later, I don't agree with that approach, as you invest most of the money and the political capital just to acquire and dedicate the ROW. If you're going to go that far, why not finish the job and install the transit system that will maximize the return on investment.

by David Versel on Jan 16, 2013 3:20 pm • linkreport

"Unless BRT runs in its own lane then its not actually BRT. If you're going to build your own lane then you might as well lay down rails and get the higher capacity streetcar."'ve got that right.

Please see my post under Dan Reed's MoCo BRT article:

by Jason on Jan 16, 2013 3:22 pm • linkreport

Arlington could really use some north-south connections. Glebe road comes to mind. Infill stations on the orange line between Ballston and East Falls Church come to mind, specifically where North George Mason and Patrick Henry cross the line.

by Kevin Diffily on Jan 16, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

@ Distantantennas and Sayne:

Streetcars and metros across the world have a crazy quilt of gauges, although all newly built systems in the USA are standard gauge.

Below is a listing of non-standard subway and street railway gauges in the USA:

Bay Area Rapid Transit system - 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm - "Indian Broad Gauge")

Baltimore streetcars (old system - defunct) - 5 ft 4½ in (1,638 mm)

Philadelphia streetcars, Philadelphia Market-Frankford subway, Pittsburgh Light Rail, New Orleans streetcars, Columbus, Ohio streetcars (defunct) - 5 ft 2 1⁄4 in (1,581 mm) and 5 ft 2 1⁄2 in (1,588 mm)

Toronto subway, streetcar system - 4 ft 10⅞ in (1,495 mm)

San Francisco cable cars, Los Angeles Railway (defunct), San Diego Electric Railway (defunct, gauge before 1898) - 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm "Cape Gauge")

San Francisco's MUNI Metro system, Philadelphia's Broad Street Subway, the Norristown "High-Speed" line, the PATCO line to New Jersey and Baltimore's newer light rail system are all standard gauge.

San Francisco has three different gauges for BART, MUNI metro and the cablecars.

by Frank IBC on Jan 16, 2013 3:52 pm • linkreport

re: US 1 South of City of Alexandria, I think the best option would actually be Metro, not streetcar, especially given the distance down to Ft. Belvoir. Streetcar stops are traditionally closer together and it would take hours to get to Ft. Belvoir. However, i am realistic and it probably wont happen for a long time since VA and NoVa is spending any and all metro money on the Silver line.

by Allan F on Jan 16, 2013 4:24 pm • linkreport

Sigh, hopefully in the future that opposition by old towners will change. Maybe if DC gets streetcars going and the line on 8th street through Capitol hill happens then they will see that it is a far better option than busses due to it being so much quieter!

by NikolasM on Jan 16, 2013 7:43 pm • linkreport

"I'd much rather have BRT on a dedicated ROW than a streetcar that's stuck in the same traffic as every other vehicle."

the comparison should not be BRT in dedicated ROW vs street ca r in traffic, but BRT vs LRT in dedicated ROW,or ehanced (articulated?) bus in mixed traffic vs streetcar in mixed traffic. ROW is either available or it is not. Where it is that strengthens the case for LRT, though I do not concede that street car is the wrong choice for ColPike.

TMT - Silver line is heavy rail. Turning a BRT line into heavy rail is a far different endeavour than adding light rail to a seperate busway. I do not think that would have been a good approach for the silver line. and of course heavt rail is not the subject of this post.

As for proposals for light rail on rte 7 - FFX County is definitely contemplating exending pike rail to 7 corners (I believe Penny Gross said as much in her recent town hall in mason district - though she also said the county should first see how pikerail works out) and the City of Falls church seems very interested in a line - connecting on to Tysons is the obvious completion.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 16, 2013 8:48 pm • linkreport

TMT -- I would respectfully disagree that Route 7 is "Virginia's most important commercial corridor." I've never heard that comment in countless meetings about Tysons. Rather, I would suggest the Dulles Toll Road corridor, ranging from Tysons to the Airport and then into Ashburn in Loudoun is more often regarded as the most important commercial corridor by most Fairfax and State decision-makers.

I guess it depends on your definition of a corridor. By corridor I mean buildings that have an actual address of Route 7 or are within a few blocks of 7. Nothing has an actual address of the DTR and you wouldn't talk about being a few blocks from the DTR. The Dulles Corridor is a very different type of corridor than the Route 7 corridor or the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor (which is basically Wilson/Fairfax roads) or the U ST corridor in DC.

It's just that the area never seemed to be discussed as being important to Tysons and the Dulles Corridor's success.

That's probably because there's a lack of infrastructure connecting the Route 7 corridor with Tysons. There's tons of people and businesses along 7 SE of Tysons but it can take an hour to go from Seven Corners to Tysons during rush hour (a distance of 5 miles).

by Falls Church on Jan 16, 2013 10:50 pm • linkreport

Unless BRT runs in its own lane then its not actually BRT. If you're going to build your own lane then you might as well lay down rails and get the higher capacity streetcar

I don't know about that. BRT has been implemented successfully in other places and I haven't heard planners saying "well, they should have really built streetcars instead of BRT". Rather, those successful BRT projects get a lot praise as being innovative.

I think BRT makes more sense in a more spreadout place like the suburbs where you might not have the density for light rail.

by Falls Church on Jan 16, 2013 10:53 pm • linkreport

Also, if the system has its own ROW for most--but not all--of the distance, buses have the advantage of being able to take detours as needed, to go around disabled cars, piles of snow, or even a 1/2-mile backup confined to one road (if the next station in not within that backup).

by JimT on Jan 17, 2013 7:52 am • linkreport

Falls Church

A lot of the issue, I think, is not the density on the corridor itself - once you have seperated ROW, the transit line benefits must support the construction and maintenance costs of a lane of asphalt. Its that as long as the density on the corridor is relatively low, the ridership from low density feeders off the corridor is more important, and BRT can handles those with no transfer - local buses operating conventionally in low density neighborhoods, then joining the seperate ROW. But yeah, overall I agree with you that BRT can work as a bridge to LRT, and places where the low density feeder lines are more important.

JimT - yes, the same arguments against street cars in mixed traffic in general (I was thinking more capital costs, as I have seen claims that the operational problems are not that big a deal in actual mixed traffic street car operations) would apply to systems with short segments of seperated ROW. The longer the stretch of seperated ROW, and the more efficicently seperated, the stronger the case for rail.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 17, 2013 9:47 am • linkreport

@Allan F - I do agree that Metro down RT 1 to Fort Belvoir would be ideal, but the corridor also needs more frequent (and more local) service to become an area of viable mixed use developments. Near where I live on Rt 1, there are some new mixed use developments, but their reliance on buses as the only form of public transit means that the majority of visitors are by car (and adding to the traffic problems on Rt 1, which also slows bus service through the corridor).

@NikolasM - If you have been watching the Waterfront issues in Old Town, then you know that most of the complaints about developments in the area are spearheaded by a small minority. One option that could work would be to run the streetcar through Del Ray, linking them with both Crystal City and King St Metros, before heading down Duke St to rejoin Rt 1 south out of Old Town. While it may be 'out of the way' for some, it could both provide a link to the Metro and maybe (in the distant future) provide the basis for light rail to extend out Duke St into West Alexandria.

by Thad on Jan 17, 2013 10:17 am • linkreport

I would assume most users of a light rail on Rte 1 south of old town would either be using it to move locally in that area, or would be using it to access metrorail to get to DC, the Pentagon, etc. I would suspect that transferrring to metro rail will be competitive in time, reliability and cost to taking light rail all the way from the Rte 1 corridor in Fairfax to say, Crystal City. Given that, it seems like connecting the CCPY transitway to the a SE fairfax RTE 1 transitway, would be a low priority

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 17, 2013 10:45 am • linkreport

Falls Church,

Thank you for the clarification on your definition of "corridor." I understand your reasoning now.

As far as traffic between 7 Corners and Tysons, I understand your views there also. That area was not given a lot of consideration during the Tysons planning and post-planning process most likely (IMO) because Route 7 goes through the City of Falls Church. The City, except for water issues, was largely absent during the Tysons reviews. For example, Route 7 is scheduled to be widened between the Beltway and the City line boundary. That's about it. Much more input came from the Pimmit Hills community, both directly and through the McLean Citizens Association. From what I've observed, Route 7 between Tysons and Reston is viewed as a much more important issue by decision-makers than Route 7 in the other direction.

by tmt on Jan 17, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

from the post

"Fairfax Supervisor Penny Gross said that although extensions to the Columbia Pike line are desirable, it was important to get the first segment built rather than bogging down the whole process by considering alternatives. "

Clearly the County wants to see PikeRail farther along before discussing any extensions. Given the time frame for that, and that the Rte 7 widening west of Tysons is so urgent a priority for the County (lets not revisit the wisdom of that urgency) its clear that the Rte 7 west widening will happen first.

I would suggest that in the longer run, a case could be made that Rte 7 from Tysons to Baileys is at least as important to the region, though.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 17, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

Northern Virginia and Smart Growth are like Saudi Arabia and religious tolerance.

by DC on Jan 17, 2013 2:29 pm • linkreport

The term BRT does not have an agreed upon definition, and there are more descriptive terms available and thus it is best avoided as it causes confusion.

A dedicated right of way is the single most important feature in a transit line. None of the options Arlington considered in its most recent alternatives analysis for the Pike included a dedicated lane: they considered using traditional buses, articulated buses, and a streetcar - all in mixed traffic. While trolleys are attractive and offer a slightly nicer ride, a purchase of a modern articulated bus fleet would demonstrate a commitment to upgraded Pike transit, provide nearly identical capactiy/route time as a streetcar (yet be more reliable), and would allow resources to flow to important projects like more frequent ART service and direct-to-DC bus routes. This argument is common in South Arlington but the Editors of GGW have yet to choose to run a post from a pro-transit streetcar foe, which is unfortunate for the region's most important urbanist news source.

by BaRT on Jan 18, 2013 9:40 am • linkreport

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