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Arlington can't forget what made it what it is

It's a truism in politics that if you repeat a statement often enough, people will believe it, regardless of whether it's true. In Arlington, a cohort of commentators and activists has been chanting that the County Board is full of profligate spenders. Now that claim has started to have currency in county politics, even though it's grounded in little at all.


Historic photo of Rosslyn via Arlington Fire Journal.

Fifty years ago, Arlington was an aging suburb that progress had passed by on the way to greener pastures in Fairfax County. Outdated retail strips, struggling businesses and a declining population portended a bleak future. State and federal planners saw Arlington mostly as space to be traversed between home and work, and they proposed cutting up its neighborhoods for commuter roads.

County residents and leaders did not respond to this challenge by spending as little as possible in the vain hope that doing so would attract people and economic growth. Instead, they campaigned to build an expensive Metrorail subway and put it under Wilson Boulevard, with the goal of transforming it from a tired suburban strip into a new downtown. They planned walkable centers with more housing, jobs and retail, plus new streets and sidewalks.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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If Arlington wants to build a subway underneath Columbia Pike or is able to get dedicated lanes for the streetcar, I'll support it. However, $650k for what amounts to a really nice bus stop and streetcars that will be stuck in traffic makes absolutely no sense. Streetcar = possibly more development = more traffic = why did we spend half a billion dollars for a transit system that doesn't even beat walking.

by Johnny on May 17, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

As a former Arlington resident, I'd disagree with the argument that the densification of Arlington hasn't come at the expense of existing neighborhoods, which are now a mish-mash of older homes and McMansions overshadowed by truly mediocre apartment and commercial buildings on major arteries. The planning may have been noble but the execution has been largely tasteless.

I view the opposition to the streetcar as simply a proxy for slowing down and assessing whether Arlington wants to encourage more ugly Ballston-style development along the Pike.

by Lyon Pillage on May 17, 2014 11:43 am • linkreport

I may be at risk of violating your comment policy by typing in all caps, but: THANK YOU!

by Michael Hamilton on May 17, 2014 11:49 am • linkreport

The first two comments above nicely summarize the contradictory arguments made in opposition of the streetcar. It won't work unless it's a metro line like we have in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, but also any development like what we have in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is a threat to our way of life and must be fought at every turn. Only more expensive solutions will work, but this one is way too expensive. Of course, as David points out, neither commenter is interested in addressing the actual benefits of the streetcar, but that seems to be the common blind spot of those in opposition.

Perhaps we can accept that this isn't the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, the constraints placed on new transit are largely dictated by VDOT's refusal to allow dedicated lanes, and the plan has been heavily studied and represents the best solution for Columbia Pike for the near future (given those constraints). Or we can just keep fighting it with the same contradictory arguments until it's actually built, at which point everyone will realize it provides some nice benefits without being the end of the world as we know it.

by Gray on May 17, 2014 1:05 pm • linkreport

I love denser development, but agree that the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar would be money poorly spent. It simply wouldn't provide enough benefit for the huge cost. Too slow, and likely too unreliable due to sharing lanes. Now, if the costs can be brought down, then it may be worth it. But to say we should build the streetcar at any cost 'just because' is foolish.

by Theo on May 17, 2014 3:33 pm • linkreport

@ Theo:Too slow

Shhhh.... Officials will never, ever say this, but everybody knows that as soon as the streetcars get really stuck in traffic, pressure on VDOT to get separated lanes will increase. The dedicated lanes will come. Meanwhile, shhhhh...

The world is not ideal. You gotta work with what you've got.

by Jasper on May 17, 2014 4:07 pm • linkreport

"Perhaps we can accept that this isn't the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, the constraints placed on new transit are largely dictated by VDOT's refusal to allow dedicated lanes, and the plan has been heavily studied and represents the best solution for Columbia Pike "

Exactly. People act like the counties involved picked a streetcar just because and keep bringing up questions that have already been answered as to why a streetcar and not X.

by Drumz on May 17, 2014 5:50 pm • linkreport

Whatever the architectural style is, someone won't like it. I am not going to judge the RB corridor on that (somehow multiple generations of colonial knock offs doesn't seem to be a reason to say SFH areas were poorly executed - instead we try to preserve them) and McMansions were by right and are built in inner suburbs without high frequency transit.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 17, 2014 9:06 pm • linkreport

This is such a mess it is hard to know where to start.

@Jasper
I think you're living in a dream world if you think VDOT is going to do anything to placate Arlington after decades of pompous indignance. And even if Arlington comes up with some kind of drug deal, it makes no sense to install the streetcar lanes then have to reconstruct them to go down the magical dedicated lanes. Either get your ducks in a row now and do it right or don't build it at all.

@Lyon Pillage
I honestly don't think that's it. We're seeing the same thing in Del Ray with Potomac Yard sprouting up right next door. To Del Ray residents, Potomac Yard is Nouveau Crapola but people seem to like it - they seem to have no problem moving units. If anything it has strengthened Del Ray just like the Wilson corridor strengthens the older parts of Arlington. Having variety in a small area is a plus, not a minus.

So as far as I am concerned, those two posts are a distraction from the real issues, cost-benefit and proponents' lack of good faith in selling it.
Consider:
* The original cost projections had absolutely no basis in reality. If the cost was projected at a third of a billion dollars initially, it would not have been nearly so popular.
* The models that project such a rosy future for the streetcar are dubious at best. This isn't H Street where small enclaves of urban renewal are separated by urban blight. We're talking about a road that is perpetually congested. A streetcar doesn't make it any less so.
* Comparing projections two decades in the future to actual usage today is so absurd that it is hard to believe anyone would take it seriously.
* Comparing Streetcar cost to Silver cost not much better. We don't actually know that the Silver Line is a good idea. It could be a colossal failure. And even if it is successful, it is not in any way an apples to apples comparison.
* It isn't like Arlington otherwise has its head in the sand regarding the future. The Crystal City developments (which by the way do feature dedicated lanes) offer great promise.

Readers must keep in mind that Mr. Alpert is an advocate, not a journalist. This is a biased editorial that, like the Streetcar project itself, doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

by movement on May 17, 2014 9:49 pm • linkreport

Perhaps if Arlington stops lying to its taxpayers we would be more apt to consider such things. But as it is, this streetcar is years from breaking ground and the price has already increased 140%. In the mean time we are embarrassed by hundred million dollar aquatic center debacles and million dollar bus stops (I'm sorry, transit depots, or whatever they rebranded them to). Needless to say, Arlington has done an awful job the past decade in breeding confidence in its ability to responsibly manage its finances.

Now I realize folks DC resident David Alpert has never come across a boondoggle mass transit project he didn't love, and that no price is too high for this street car(or the one in DC that is now 5 years late and hundreds of millions over budget) but reasonable people among us realize that the financial calculus that drives spending decisions at the County level require actual dollars to pay for them, and a 140% increase before breaking ground(when we all know their will be price escalations during construction) is unforgivable. Arlington, like other jurisdictions do, has been caught trying to downplay the expense for years hoping to get construction underway before the public discovered the real cost, knowing by then as irate as the taxpayer was, weren't likely to stop it after all that money had been spent.

Here is the bottom line, my property tax rate has skyrocketed 20% in the last 5 years. Not the amount, but the rate, and this has been during an enormous, Uncle Sam fueld economic boom in Arlington. Arlington County's yearly budget has increased at 3 times inflation every year for the last 5. Ridiculous! Folks like Alpert can try to obfuscate the reality but Arlington is addicted to spending money, and doing it irresponsibly with no oversight or restraint on things that are pure luxuries in a place like Arlington. The most recent Board election was a referendum of that and despite GGWs support, the "spendy" street car fan candidate lost...badly. Results this fall will be the same.

by ArlRez on May 17, 2014 10:04 pm • linkreport

I personally support a subway under Columbia Pike. From Tysons to splitting the silver/orange to Columbia pike to the national harbor and then running into DC along the Green Line up to Gallery Place

Such a line would be expensive but be amazing for the area.

by BRTsucks on May 18, 2014 8:46 am • linkreport

Just clarifying

It would follow the silver line initially, then split off at East Falls Church to Columbia Pike.

then meet with yellow/blue before going to the national harbor and connecting to follow the Green Line to Gallery Place.

I can't think of anything that would help the areas involved more. Arlington and Tysons would see unreal economic growth. The potential ridership would be extremely helpful to the system in general. Maryland would be able to focus on economic development around the area.

I want this a lot.

by BRTsucks on May 18, 2014 8:51 am • linkreport

but reasonable people among us realize that the financial calculus that drives spending decisions at the County level require actual dollars to pay for them

Yes, let's consider where these dollars will come from.

- Federal money specifically geared towards new public transportation lines
- A specific tax on commercial real estate in Arlington that is supposed to be used for public transportation.

Yes, those dollars are still "your money" but its also money that comes from sources other than your property taxes.

by drumz on May 18, 2014 9:09 am • linkreport

The models that project such a rosy future for the streetcar are dubious at best. This isn't H Street where small enclaves of urban renewal are separated by urban blight. We're talking about a road that is perpetually congested. A streetcar doesn't make it any less so.

Neither does doing nothing. Meanwhile, a number of the people on the congested pike are on buses that are at capacity. The only reasonable way to increase that capacity today on the pike is by bringing in a larger vehicle, like a streetcar.

Comparing projections two decades in the future to actual usage today is so absurd that it is hard to believe anyone would take it seriously.

Yes, in 20 years we may all be dead. That doesn't mean we shouldn't plan. Again, the current public transportation on Columbia Pike is already stretched and needs room to grow.

by drumz on May 18, 2014 9:13 am • linkreport

*slow clap* Excellent piece!

Antis - please respond to the points made in the article. No one has addressed how the cost is actually not high at all, as it is less than a small bridge, which is only a tiny part of the road network. As soon as you start protesting rebuilding bridges (too expensive!) your arguments will at least be consistent.

Build the rail now, advocate for transit only lanes later. Or, instead of attacking rail, start advocating for transit only lanes now.

by h st ll on May 18, 2014 9:15 am • linkreport

Drums,

So you are saying because some of it is fed money, the price shouldn't matter? That Arlington residents shouldn't be dubious when the obviously low balled price has climbed 140%, and we are still 3-4 years from breaking ground?

And if you think commercial property owners, in a county suffering historically unheard of vacancy rates with Brac dumping millions of square feet of re on the market, will simply stand by and agree to pay "whatever" for a platnium, mixed traffic solution, you are sorely mistaken.

Lastly, for those of you comparing this ridiculousness to bridges or road projects, the mixing bowl and Wilson bridge has come up recently...the mixing bowl moves 430k vehicles per day, which includes millions of people and hundreds of millions in freight, cargo. This streetcar already costs 75% as much, move ~ 40k people per day ( hopefully) in 15 years, and zero commerce.

The 11th street bridge moves 80k vehicles per day, and Wilson bridge 230k vehicles per day. The per trip price for moving people along is dozens of times more efficient for these projects than the streetcar, let along the billions in freight and cargo commerce they carry as well.

Oh, and pointing to the silver line, another mass transit boondoggle that's grown from 1.5 billion to 6 billion in price, and the second phase is yet to break ground, doesn't make a good point for your argument.

by Arlrez on May 18, 2014 10:06 am • linkreport

There is a case to be made for the streetcar, and it's a pretty good one. But this piece squanders it's credibility early by dismissing and ridiculing those who have legitimate concerns about the willingness of Arlington leadership to sign off on low-ball project estimates and to back large spending projects of dubious merit, and to generally be lax about controlling county spending levels. The case to restore confidence in the Columbia Pike streetcar must be built around distinguishing this project from others in Arlington and explaining why transit projections are accurate and no other solutions exist to Columbia Pike traffic and Columbia Pike's need for investment and enhancement. GGW articles and discussion have done a good job with that before, but this piece doesn't take that tack.

by FHE on May 18, 2014 10:23 am • linkreport

Yes, @drumz, plan. Plan for something that addresses the core problem. Lack of bus capacity is not the core problem. It is congestion. You can plan incremental improvements too, but you need to act in good faith when doing so. If you can't make a reasonable improvement there, focus your attention (and limited resources) where you can.

by movement on May 18, 2014 11:20 am • linkreport

Neither does doing nothing. Meanwhile, a number of the people on the congested pike are on buses that are at capacity. The only reasonable way to increase that capacity today on the pike is by bringing in a larger vehicle, like a streetcar.
Wrong. Adding buses to parallel routes as a pressure relief valve, such as the Arlington Boulevard bus routes, is a perfectly reasonable way to increase capacity for the entire region, and also a better use of the money we would otherwise waste on a mixed-traffic streetcar meant to boost development revenue rather than actually help riders.

by Ryan on May 18, 2014 12:57 pm • linkreport

"The 11th street bridge moves 80k vehicles per day, and Wilson bridge 230k vehicles per day. The per trip price for moving people along is dozens of times more efficient for these projects than the streetcar, let along the billions in freight and cargo commerce they carry as well."

Incorrect. Many people will take the streetcar, and streetcar only (or they will transfer to metro, increasing the utility of metro and lessening the need for SOV). No one is only taking the bridge. They drive, usually extensively, on either end. So the utility of the bridges is much less and the costs for roads much, much higher.

by h st ll on May 18, 2014 1:01 pm • linkreport

I suspect that the ant-streetcar crowd will remain adamantly so regardless of the compelling reasons for the project. Meanwhile, the rest of country is stating its preference with its actions. Numerous streetcar projects are in various stages of construction while others are nearing approval for construction. I count eleven streetcar projects that will open between now and early 2016. The 3.9 mile Tucson, AZ, streetcar, which opens later this year, will connect the University of Arizona with downtown Tucson (and dramatically improving accessibility all along the route). The line has already helped spark over a $500 million in new downtown development with at least an additional $1 billion expected over the short term. Yes, the Tucson streetcar will travel in mixed traffic but the project has yielded significant benefits even before the first passenger has been moved. The same results are being seen in Kansas City, MO and Cincinnati, OH, as the areas along the routes in these cities experience development surges sparked by the coming of the streetcar. Both cities are now looking to expand even before the first routes are opened. The one city that may have begun the streetcar trend, Portland, OR, has seen ridership triple since the first segment was opened in 2001 (with significant accompanying economic development to boot).

by Glen on May 18, 2014 1:51 pm • linkreport

Utility of a bridge or road project?

Show me a grocery store that gets resupplied by a streetcar in the US?

No? Then the bridge wins the utility argument.

by Tom on May 18, 2014 2:14 pm • linkreport

movement -- my understanding is that the traffic on H St. is comparable to Columbia Pike. Of course, H St. is much shorter and the line will be connected, eventually, to Metro stations. But the reason that traffic on H Street isn't as bad, actually it is dropping, is because of the Metro system more generally, including the addition ten years ago of the NoMA station in the north of neighborhood. The H Street neighborhood in fact enjoys the best set of transportation assets in the region, so it makes sense that streetcar service will start there first.

Those assets:
- Union Station
- Amtrak service
- commuter railroad service (recently augmented by MARC weekend service)
- high capacity intracity bus service (X and 90s line) plus low capacity services as well (certain D buses and other services)
- intercity bus service at Union Station (formerly at the Greyhound bus terminal also in the neighborhood)
- access to New York Ave. for I-95/BWI north connections and to I-395 for south connections
- close to National Airport
- easy biking distance to Downtown, but continued expansion of bikeway network

If the Amtrak element of Union Station is significantly expanded as planned and the streetcar line becomes part of a broader network, this will only improve.

by Richard Layman on May 18, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

arrgh. the list should have read "Union Station and redline subway service"

by Richard Layman on May 18, 2014 2:54 pm • linkreport

ArlRez -- taking off my "regional hat" and putting my "pro-DC hat on, firmly" I am happy for Arlington to not improve the transit situation on Columbia Pike because that makes one less area that will heavily compete with DC for new residents and economic activity.

From the standpoint of intelligent planning, I can see why Arlington would like to reposition Columbia Pike with a new type of transit so that it can better compete for economic activity within the region.

But yes, BRAC and other issues (including the Silver Line) make Arlington less desirable and having to compete more strongly for commercial space. Again, do they just sit there and moan, or respond?

Were I in their shoes I would attempt to respond.

by Richard Layman on May 18, 2014 3:00 pm • linkreport

Ryan,

So what do you propose for people who are trying to get to or depart from destinations on Columbia Pike?

Movement,

So what do you propose for congestion? Widening the road? A metro line? Ok, but those have been considered and deemed unfeasible for various reasons. Meanwhile, the streetcar does address congestion. It removes thousands of VMT compared to a no-build scenario. Primarily because it will support increased development on Columbia Pike where people are closer to transit rather than that pop. growth going somewhere else like Fairfax county.

Arl Rez,

They've already been paying the tax. The streetcar will be just one of the first projects that the fund helps pay for.

by drumz on May 18, 2014 3:11 pm • linkreport

So what do you propose for people who are trying to get to or depart from destinations on Columbia Pike?
Continue using any of the many buses running along Columbia Pike today - redirecting the streetcar money towards expanding bus service doesn't mean that the amount of service on Columbia Pike goes down. Indeed, just the opposite: since the Pike is already at capacity, adding a streetcar necessitates the removal of some buses and probably gets us net-zero increase.

Conversely, expanding bus service on Arlington Boulevard provides new options for people who aren't trying to get to or from destinations halfway up or down the Pike - like, say, Skyline, which is probably better served by a bus up Leesburg and over Arlington in light of the congestion on Columbia Pike. People living in the space between Arlington and Columbia gain the option to walk to either street for their bus, and with frequent service on both corridors walking to either street is a safe bet - unlike today, where Arlington Boulevard sees much less service and going there is a huge gamble. And, of course, increasing the number of east-west travel corridors is a huge boon to those trying to go between Rosslyn/Pentagon City/Crystal City and Leesburg Pike, people who don't intend to stop anywhere on Columbia Pike or any of the other east-west roads.

People trying to reach Columbia Pike already have great options for doing so - the goal should be to take people who aren't trying to get to/from Columbia off of Columbia.

by Ryan on May 18, 2014 4:27 pm • linkreport

Ryan,

If people want to avoid traveling up and down Columbia Pike then the options are already there. Even on public transit there are the pentagon express buses that use 395.

Conversely, it's not getting people off Columbia Pike that is the goal. The goal is providing a way for the area to grow without a commensurate traffic increase. A streetcar is more effective than spread out bus service to this end.

Increasing bus service on 50 has merit but it's not going to work as a substitute like you're proposing.

And replacing some buses with a streetcar would be a net-positive increase. It's a huge capacity increase over the buses that run on the corridor today.

by drumz on May 18, 2014 6:01 pm • linkreport

Or one could argue that those who aggressively propound walking and bike-riding and the streetcar over and over again are guilty of the same vice.

I read the Great Society Subway and largely agree with Schrag that D.C. is better off with rail than it would have been with freeways, but this it's kind of silly for you to accuse other people of repeating the same thing over and over again to convince them of something when this forum does the same thing.

I realize this site is trying to make Washington better, but streetcars and pedestrian-friendly everything everywhere is not necessary, does not necessarily make the region better after a certain point, and is probably not cost-effective.

by context on May 18, 2014 6:53 pm • linkreport

If Arlingtonians are unhappy about property taxes, they should at least be glad they don't live in Alexandria, where they went up again this year after a huge 2013 increase and raised assessments.

I wonder how Alexandria's monoparty City Council is going to justify a vast debt increase to build the Potomac Yards Metro stop. This stop sounds like it's largely going to benefit developers of a residential area rather than the city. And since the city has now already invested in BRT on Route 1, which may be a very good idea, why is the Metro stop needed in addition?

by Willow on May 18, 2014 7:58 pm • linkreport

@drumz
In general I am in agreement with Ryan.

A streetcar is more effective than spread out bus service to this end.

This claim has been made over and over, but it is dubious at best. The models are not robust enough to support their conclusions. As for what I would do, I think the articulated bus option hits the right price point. It isn't as sexy as a streetcar but this isn't a vanity project (or is it?). Supporting off-board fare collection may be the most cost-effective improvement available as long as building a dedicated right-of-way remains off the table.

@Willow
I've been saying for years that there is a significant chance that Potomac Yard Metro will never be built. As the process limps along, things have only gotten worse. In fact I can't remember a single event in the process that has made me say "That's good news!" I feel like planners have spent this entire time praying that they can do better than Option A. It turns out they can't. It will then be up to the city to decide if it is worth the 9-figure investment or whether they should simply fall back on the BRT route and accelerate the schedule for upgrading it to streetcar.

by movement on May 18, 2014 8:48 pm • linkreport

If being "sexy" means more people will ride it, then being "sexy" is a worthy goal. Any transit is a waste of money if people won't get on the damn thing.

by Chris Slatt on May 18, 2014 9:14 pm • linkreport

@CS
Given today's ridership numbers on the Columbia Pike bus lines, that doesn't appear to be a problem.

by movement on May 18, 2014 10:32 pm • linkreport

Now, if the costs can be brought down, then it may be worth it.

OK, at what price point does the streetcar benefit exceed cost and where does that benefit calculation come from?

by David C on May 18, 2014 10:37 pm • linkreport

The models are not robust enough to support their conclusions.

The models that project such a rosy future for the streetcar are dubious at best.

One theme of the anti crowd is that none of the data can be trusted. The price is too low. The projected benefits are too high. But if we're going to dismiss all of the projections, then how can we possibly make decisions? Basically we're left with having to decide what to do about traffic congestion on Columbia Pike without any cost projections or any benefits projections because none of the models are robust enough. That's no way to govern. If someone has better cost and benefit projections, then present them, but without that, it's all distraction.

by David C on May 18, 2014 10:53 pm • linkreport

BTW, the current ROI study determined that:

"Columbia Pike streetcar will generate $3.2-4.4 billion in incremental benefits for Arlington and Fairfax Counties, over and above capital and operating costs, during a 30-year time frame. The benefits derive from property value increases and faster and more expansive development. This is $2.2-3 billion more than would be generated by enhanced bus service."

So that's why streetcar.

http://www.columbiapikeva.us/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/HRA-Draft-County-Management-Working-Paper-3-26-2014.pdf

by David C on May 18, 2014 10:55 pm • linkreport

Re: I realize this site is trying to make Washington better, but streetcars and pedestrian-friendly everything everywhere is not necessary, does not necessarily make the region better after a certain point, and is probably not cost-effective.

We are so absolutely far from that point that it isn't funny. Hell, even in DC proper we are so far from that point it is unbelieveable (I see the need for two maybe three more subway lines, two could be created through separation). The counties, even Arlington, are far far far far far from that point.

Note that it took about 25 years to begin to see substantive measurable impact of the WMATA system outside of the downtown core, and even within the core, e.g., eastern downtown.

Note that in my previous comments about Arlington, BRAC, etc., I didn't mean that Columbia Pike has great opportunity to capture commercial space, I meant that it can capture more residential and other.... along the lines that Glen laid out wrt other streetcar projects elsewhere and their catalytic effect on development or what we can call "residential and commercial location" within their catchment areas.

And wrt the comments people make about VDOT and separated running, it is possible, with continued changes in VA state government at the top, that this will change.

E.g., had the streetcar been further along and closer to operation, I could see Gov. McAuliffe ordering VDOT to change its priorities, or the development of a full MOU where Arllington gets control of its roads (like Baltimore City vis a vis Maryland).

by Richard Layman on May 19, 2014 6:35 am • linkreport

As for what I would do, I think the articulated bus option hits the right price point. It isn't as sexy as a streetcar but this isn't a vanity project (or is it?).

The alternatives analysis (which you're claiming isn't "robust enough", not that I'm appealing to authority but I don't have much else to go on) sort of said what you said. A streetcar is still more capacity and more VMT removed.

HOWEVER,

The streetcar's virtue is in being "sexy". For whatever reason, people say they're more willing to to build/live along a streetcar line. So much so that the return on a streetcar is several times larger than enhanced bus.

It may be a vanity project but does it make sense to leave money like that on the table? I don't think so.

So sure, we could get a lot of utility from just buses but that means ignoring what we've learned about TOD and how corridors can reposition themselves for the future.

by drumz on May 19, 2014 8:25 am • linkreport

As far as I can tell, the models are based on an assessment of different types of growth in places that have employed different transit approaches. There are two problems with this.

1. The assessments are overcomplicated. Transit solves a single problem - lack of mobility. It doesn't make a place a place - that's zoning. It doesn't bake bread or cure cancer or all of the other things that are cooked into the evaluation.

2. I see no indication that streetcars with a separated-right-of-way are evaluated differently from those that don't. If transit doesn't actually solve that problem in a meaningful way (for example a streetcar line that is perpetually stuck in traffic) then word will get out and growth will be stunted accordingly.

So my recommendation is to take a step back, focus specifically on the mobility aspect, and go from there. Since streetcars aren't going to solve mobility issue without dedicated lanes, look at the issues that can be addressed with the resources available:
* on-board payment
* bunching
You can model the impacts of both of these issues and you can model how technology improvements would address them. Once you have this assessment, identify the cheapest path to getting there. As far as I can tell, that path is the articulated bus.

by movement on May 19, 2014 9:06 am • linkreport

1. The rest of the Columbia Pike plan addresses this. The county board passed a form based code and created a TIF for affordable housing in the area. So the land use component is being addressed.

2. The ROI study did look at several types of streetcar. The Alternatives analysis compared the streetcar as-is with (obviously) its alternatives, including enhanced bus and a no-build option. The streetcar worked out the best, mobility wise in both analyses. Meanwhile, you can really avoid the bunching issue with a streetcar. Because it's bigger and you need fewer total vehicles.

Once you have this assessment, identify the cheapest path to getting there.

No one denies that the bus is cheaper. The reason the streetcar was selected was because the benefits justified the increased costs. This has been affirmed twice now.

by drumz on May 19, 2014 9:29 am • linkreport

Well yeah, if you just throw out the land use argument completely and focus narrowly on "mobility" then bus improvements get you the mobility improvement for a cheaper overall cost.

But I think a look at history would tell you that transportation improvements have land use consequences. Different cities in the USA and around the world have grown up in different ways because of the planning objectives chosen in those places, right?

If that's the case, then evaluating our transportation investment choices solely on "mobility" as you define it and not on the potential land use consequences is short-sighted and counter to Arlington County's overall planning goals.

identify the cheapest path to getting there.
You are defining "there" too narrowly. The cheapest path to a "there" that includes $4bn in development benefits over operating costs is the streetcar. Read what David C wrote.

by MLD on May 19, 2014 9:36 am • linkreport

"It will then be up to the city to decide if it is worth the 9-figure investment or whether they should simply fall back on the BRT route and accelerate the schedule for upgrading it to streetcar."

how odd that Alexandria may find a streetcar a better option than building ONE infill metro station, while some folks claim PikeRail is not a good idea because it would be better to build a new heavy rail metro line its length instead.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 19, 2014 9:45 am • linkreport

Despite my lamentations that there's no dedicated lane, I hope no one takes that as being anti-streetcar. While I think the benefits are far, far more muted (and barely edge out better buses), the streetcar is clearly the least unpalatable realistic option. Build what you can and try to make it better.

And re: the possibility of later dedicated lanes, I am an idiot. Is this supposed to be curb-running or in the median?

by LowHeadways on May 19, 2014 9:58 am • linkreport

IIRC, It's supposed to be like H Street, in the right lane with parking still available and bulb outs for the stops.

The parking lane is too narrow/inconsistent for it to be running in the right lane the whole way.

by drumz on May 19, 2014 10:03 am • linkreport

*right-most lane

by drumz on May 19, 2014 10:03 am • linkreport

@MLD I apologize for my out-of-line statements the other day. Please note this Twitter thread:
https://twitter.com/AlexandriaVAMom/status/467238110661976064

@AWITC the "some folks" that want heavy rail on CP aren't being realistic. There is no foreseeable funding for a 10 figure project that only really benefits two counties.

The problems with CP and PY are actually quite similar. The governments know exactly what they want to build but they can't because of the peculiarities of the locations they are stuck with. They each will have a hard decision to make - is it worth the cost to build what they know is a suboptimal solution?

@drumz
This has been affirmed twice now.

It has been proclaimed, but not affirmed. It is not in any way a fact. Careful, you're starting to sound like David Alpert.

by movement on May 19, 2014 10:08 am • linkreport

It has been proclaimed, but not affirmed.

http://www.columbiapikeva.us/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/HRA-Draft-County-Management-Working-Paper-3-26-2014.pdf

Like David C said, if you're going to dismiss this and all other analysis done by the county feel free but you're going to have to be way more specific.

by drumz on May 19, 2014 10:14 am • linkreport

The only way for it to be a fact is for the streetcar to actually be built. Until then all we have is reasonable analysis that has already been done and completed over the course of several years by professional transportation planners.

I know I run the risk of an appeal to authority fallacy but how else exactly do we expect to be reasonably informed about what's proposed and what's projected to happen?

by drumz on May 19, 2014 10:17 am • linkreport

"@AWITC the "some folks" that want heavy rail on CP aren't being realistic. There is no foreseeable funding for a 10 figure project that only really benefits two counties."

they are nonetheless an important (AFAICT) part of the anti streetcar coalition, and part of the drumbeat of anti arguments.

"The problems with CP and PY are actually quite similar. The governments know exactly what they want to build but they can't because of the peculiarities of the locations they are stuck with. They each will have a hard decision to make - is it worth the cost to build what they know is a suboptimal solution?"

IOW the soluctions may be optimal given the constraints.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 19, 2014 10:17 am • linkreport

Tom,

Your comment is incredibly silly.

Because you can't supply grocery stores with streetcars, they are worthless?

See, this is the kind of 'thinking' that the County Board and staff get bombarded with that makes them sound arrogant and dismissive sometimes. It's hard not to be when forced to answer such absurd comments.

by me on May 19, 2014 10:35 am • linkreport

@Me,

I wasn't the one trying to compare the utility differential between road projects and this street car, the proponents were.

Simply put, there is no comparison. This streetcar would mostly ferry people to and from work. The bridge mentioned here carries dozens of times the number if people , both commuters and travelers and also carries commerce and cargo which this expensive bus on rails does not.

by Tom on May 19, 2014 10:51 am • linkreport

This streetcar would mostly ferry people to and from work.

Which, is exactly when traffic is the worst. The more people going to work on public transit and not in there cars, the more room for trucks to move freight.

by drumz on May 19, 2014 10:59 am • linkreport

A few observations:

Show me a streetcar delivering freight (who cares if it's in America or groceries? irrelevantly narrow, no one's talking about tearing up the entire road)
One can carry freight on a streetcar. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nd5WGLWNllA#t=123 (Volkswagen in Dresden).

On costs (which all discussion so far seems to be ignoring any costs after construction...): Any numbers on the yearly maintenance and running costs? I suspect a larger capacity & electric streetcar running on steel is cheaper than diesel buses running on asphalt. Anyone know actual numbers?

by John on May 19, 2014 11:03 am • linkreport

Tom

I dont think DA is suggesting that the douglass bridge should not be replaced. But to give context to the price tag for Pike Rail. the infra we build for cars is very expensive. And no, no truck can deliver to a grocery store using that bridge alone - it can only with a network of other streets and highways. IE its over a half billion for JUST that one piece of the road network. Ergo, the TWO street car projects under discussion are not really THAT expensive. Does that prove they are benefit cost positive. No, it does not. To determine that you need to look at the costs AND all the benefits, including the placemaking benefits. But the OMG, this spendthrift board is out of control needs to be seen in the context of what transport infra in general actually costs.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 19, 2014 11:05 am • linkreport

You're asking me counter a 120-page paper in the comments section of a blog. That isn't going to happen but I can tell you based on a cursory review that it is strongly biased towards the streetcar.

For example, in Appendix A they shred BRT-like approaches for not being true BRT but they don't do the same with streetcar. Columbia Pike is treated just like the Portland and Seattle streetcar systems despite having vastly different characteristics.

The interview questions (Appendix C) are also seriously flawed. They essentially ask the same question over and over, "What do you like better, streetcar or bus?" A better approach would ask those questions in a non-leading way. It would also focus on quality measures as opposed to labels. This is critical to distinguishing the projected benefits from previous projects that share similar but not equal characteristics.

Flawed studies like this contribute to group-think. This is dangerous. When you see studies like this, don't just accept them as fact. Scrutinize them. Ask questions. Push back. It is really hard to make a good study. The people doing them are trying their best but sometimes they get things wrong. If they are honest (and they usually are) they will appreciate the feedback. And if the study does hold up to scrutiny then you know you have something good.

by movement on May 19, 2014 12:12 pm • linkreport

Flawed studies like this contribute to group-think. This is dangerous. When you see studies like this, don't just accept them as fact.

I didn't. I read the report and found it reasonable. Which is why I think criticisms need to be a little meatier than a reflexive "it's biased!".

So anyway,

That isn't going to happen but I can tell you based on a cursory review that it is strongly biased towards the streetcar.

This the reflexivity I'm talking about. Now, they were asked to find out which mode has a bigger ROI. They're obviously going to answer that question one way or the other.

For example, in Appendix A they shred BRT-like approaches for not being true BRT but they don't do the same with streetcar.
Because, they found the greatest gains BRT has to come with providing the same sort of development returns that a rail line has requires it to be gold-level BRT. That's not possible on Columbia Pike for various reasons. There are other good lessons about process from some projects but ultimately, mode matters.

Columbia Pike is treated just like the Portland and Seattle streetcar systems despite having vastly different characteristics.

What are those?

And the report does lay out what's different between those systems and what's proposed. There's a "relevance to Arlington" section after each case-study.

Bottom line: the study couldn't find evidence that the enhanced bus option, as proposed, would engender the same sort of returns as a streetcar would.

Meanwhile, the poll asks people whether they like a streetcar or a bus and what they'd do in response to either situation. That hardly seems leading.

by drumz on May 19, 2014 12:34 pm • linkreport

And I will say, the second half of your comment is what we're asking for. But I at least have had to ask for it several times from people opposed to the streetcar and I don't always get it either.

Still, we consider:

A: Arlington has had a lot of success with planning public transportation projects.
B: Streetcars have performed well and above most official estimations nationwide.
C: People are already using transit on Columbia Pike.
D: Criticisms that traffic is too bad, or the road isn't wide enough, have been brought up in those other projects and generally dismissed after the line is up and running.

I think that's a pretty good baseline for predicting whether a streetcar on Columbia Pike will work well rather than not.

by drumz on May 19, 2014 12:41 pm • linkreport

movement -- generally the equation is transit + zoning, not just transit, not just zoning.

Greater Baltimore is a perfect example wrt transit. They have transit but not a transit network and therefore can't generate at high enough a level positive real estate externalities associated with transit to generate extranormal positive quality of life supportive real estate development.

by Richard Layman on May 19, 2014 12:44 pm • linkreport

Columbia Pike is treated just like the Portland and Seattle streetcar systems despite having vastly different characteristics.

"Vastly different characteristics"? Both the Seattle and Portland streetcars operate in mixed traffic.

by MLD on May 19, 2014 1:10 pm • linkreport

The streetcar vs. bridge debate that took place above was utterly ridiculous (or fake debate...couldn't tell sometimes). The two serve such vastly different purposes, why compare them? Plus, if someone is going to claim billions of dollars of development associated with a streetcar, I'll claim tens of billions (if not more) associated with upgrading/fixing the bridge. The bridge serves as a key portion of an interstate highway that is used extensively for freight. Thus, fixing the bridge is not limited to improving a small corridor like Columbia Pike, but one could argue that it improves the I-95 corridor and allows for the transit of goods by truck...much cheaper than other forms of freight transit.

This isn't to say I'm against the streetcar--in fact, I like it and wonder if Fairfax County should consider a streetcar in Reston/Herndon or along Leesburg Pike from Tysons to Sterling. However, if there was a limited budget to spend, then I'd say the bridge is a MUCH higher priority than the Columbia Pike streetcar not only for the number of people it would serve daily but also for its benefit to the region and beyond.

by Restonite on May 19, 2014 3:32 pm • linkreport

Restonite

The Douglas Bridge, not the 11th Street bridge. The latter is part of an Interstate, the former is not. Douglass bridge carries some freight, but it's mostly there (and is sized) for passenger traffic, mostly commuter traffic, mostly SOVs at rush hour.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 19, 2014 3:39 pm • linkreport

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