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Politics


Columbia Pike streetcar becomes the central issue in Arlington's special election

Arlington voters will pick a replacement for county board member Chris Zimmerman in a special election April 4 April 8. While the two candidates have a lot in common, their take on the Columbia Pike streetcar sets them apart. One calls it an important part of the county's transportation network, while the other says it's a waste of money.


Rendering from Arlington County.

Democratic nominee Alan Howze, who was selected in a January caucus, and independent John Vihstadt aren't that far apart on most issues. Both support the county's efforts on smart growth and affordable housing. They also both support the county's move to establish a new homeless shelter at Courthouse, and they agree on some national issues, like marriage equality.

But they're divided over the Columbia Pike streetcar, the 4.9-mile line between Pentagon City and Bailey's Crossroads which has the support of most of the current board, but strong opposition from some.

Vihstadt is a member of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, an anti-streetcar group which argues the streetcar is too expensive and will not move as many people as estimated. If elected, Vihstadt would join board member Libby Garvey, who also opposes the streetcar.

He told the pro-streetcar group Arlington Streetcar Now that he wants to evaluate how BRT performs on the Crystal City/Potomac Yard transitway before committing funds to any project on Columbia Pike. AST has been advocating for Bus Rapid Transit on Columbia Pike, but their comments, and Vihstadt's statement here, glosses over the issue that BRT is not possible on Columbia Pike since there is no room for a dedicated lane, unlike for Crystal City-Potomac Yard.

Vihstadt would split the money dedicated to the project between buses on Columbia Pike and other projects throughout the county, which is appealing to some voters elsewhere in the county that want more resources spent on projects in their area.

Despite initially being publicly on the fence about the project, Howze does support the streetcar. He believes it will move more people and help support new development. In a position paper on the subject, he rejects the criticism that funds for the project will take away resources from other county priorities like schools, noting that schools take up half of the county's capital projects budget, and the streetcar hovers at around 10%.

But it's clear that calls to rein in county spending have had an effect on him. Howze has repeated that he's not someone who will just rubberstamp projects and not pay attention to costs. He says that "no project has a blank check" in regards to the county's proposed Long Bridge Aquatic Center. At a recent candidates' forum, he said the county spent too much money on a new dog park in Clarendon.

The special election's unusual date means that voter turnout will be low. Howze will have to count on Democrats being happy with the way the county has performed and the priorities it has set. Vihstadt, meanwhile, is banking on support from unhappy voters across the political spectrum who want to reverse or slow down the pace of some projects in the county. He says being the only non-Democrat on the board would be a strength, arguing the board needs more political diversity.

At the same time, there is a primary election coming up on June 8 to select a nominee to succeed retiring Rep. Jim Moran. That primary features many local leaders in Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax, which means it has gotten a lot of attention while many voters may not be focusing closely on the county board race.

Some observers think that by taking a reluctant stance toward many county projects, Howze may generate lower levels of enthusiasm among his potential supporters as compared to Vihstadt, who has been trying to appeal to various groups of voters that have a specific bone of contention with the current board. If few people vote and enough disgruntled Democrats in Arlington vote with independents and Republicans, Vihstadt is likely to win.

The victor will not have much time to rest, as the winner will have to defend his seat again in November's general election.

Public Spaces


Arlington looks at a town square for Courthouse

Can Courthouse, the area around Arlington's county seat, become a vibrant civic center? One solution may be a new town square, which Arlington County will consider as part of a new planning effort for the area.


Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

Envision Courthouse Square will update a 1993 plan which envisioned this area as a state-of-the-art government center with a signature public open space for everyone. Arlington hopes to retain that vision while updating the details to better promote multiple transportation options, smart growth, energy efficiency, and placemaking.

This effort centers around the county-owned parking lot one block from the Court House Metro station. Arlington County will consider creating a public open space, like a town square, that will be an "integral component" of the government center.


The study area boundaries. Aerial photo by Arlington County.

The study will also look at the privately-owned AMC Courthouse movie theater, the county-owned Court Square West building, and the "Landmark Block," a group of small, low-rise buildings (some of historic importance) which a single owner has recently consolidated. That recent consolidation, as well as the impending expiration of the county's lease on their current office space in 2018, provide significant opportunities for a public-private partnership to reshape this area of Courthouse.

Envision Courthouse Square will look at how to use public and private buildings in Courthouse, including what types of public amenities other than government offices would be a good fit there. It will make recommendations about building location, height, and density, including a future county office building in the area.

Planners will consider improving the overall pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular circulation network between Courthouse and surrounding neighborhoods. They'll consider valuable cultural resources, like historic buildings, the well-known "Memorial" and "Mother's" trees, public arts, and a potential cultural facility. All parts of the plan will emphasize sustainability, from building and landscape technologies to an energy master plan for the whole community.

If you're interested in helping craft an updated vision for Courthouse, the first community workshop is this Wednesday, March 26th from 7-9 pm at Key Elementary School, 2300 Key Boulevard.

Pedestrians


Arlington's new vision for Rosslyn doesn't address the "intersection of doom"

Arlington County wants to create more transportation options in Rosslyn and make it safer and more pleasant to walk or bike there. But the plan the county's working on may undermine that vision by ignoring existing bicycle and pedestrian safety issues.


Image from Arlington County.

Realize Rosslyn is a major planning effort; for over a year, Arlington County has been holding meetings, studying travel patterns, examining viewsheds and gathering feedback from all sorts of people who live, work or play in and around Rosslyn.

County planners are currently gathering feedback on a draft policy framework, a sort of vision statement for the plan. Overall it is great policy, calling for things like wider sidewalks, cycle tracks, a better-connected street grid, and connecting Rosslyn to the Potomac. What is missing, however, is any policy for addressing what Arlington cyclists call the "intersection of doom," Lee Highway and North Lynn Street.

This intersection is the most frequent site of bicycle and pedestrian collisions, according to Arlington County Police statistics. In August of 2011, a series of three cyclist injuries occurred within a single week.


The "intersection of doom" forces drivers turning right to cross paths with cyclists going straight. Image from Arlington County and edited by the author.

Pedestrians and cyclists going from the Mount Vernon Trail to the Custis Trail, or waiting to cross Key Bridge have to go through this intersection. Passing through the same space are two lanes of traffic trying to turn right to from I-66 to the Key Bridge.

Both groups have a green light at largely the same time. Cyclists and pedestrians get a "leading interval" where the walk sign has turned, but the light is not yet green for cars. Without a "no turn on red" sign for the cars, however, drivers can still turn right into the crosswalk while people are still in it.

This intersection presents many challenges. Arlington County, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the National Park Service and private individuals all own land right around this intersection. Any construction work in the area has the potential to significantly snarl bicycle, pedestrian and auto traffic.

Meanwhile, simple fixes like a "no turn on red" prohibition for the I-66 cars only address part of the problem and would likely back traffic up onto the highway. And there are viewsheds that people would like to protect, sensitive habitats, mature trees, and significant hills to contend with. That said, the status quo is clearly unsafe and a solution needs to be found.

Arlington is working on several projects that could address this problem. The North Lynn Street Esplanade and Lee Highway/Custis Trail Safety Improvements Project would improve sight lines, shorten crossing distances, and provide some additional space for bicycles and pedestrians at this spot.

But it will not fix the root issue, which is that a large crowd of bikes, pedestrians and cars all have a green light at the same time. In addition, it is LONG delayed. The last time there was a public meeting, construction was slated to begin in 2013. The current schedule has it beginning in 2015.

The county's Rosslyn Circle Study examined ways to relocate the trail so as to avoid these intersections. The Rosslyn Esplanade Study examined the potential for tunneling under Lynn Street.

In 2011, GGW contributor Steve Offutt proposed relocating the I-66 off ramp as one solution. Many folks think the proposal for an air rights development rights over I-66 provides a great opportunity to do that.

Whatever fix is decided on, the Realize Rosslyn framework needs to acknowledge that there is a problem. It is great that the plan calls for new trails and cycle tracks, and it is great that the plan calls for new parks and wider sidewalks, but the plan must also recognize that our current trail is unsafe and include a policy to implement a real, long-term solution.

This Tuesday, March 18, the Arlington County Board will vote on a "request to advertise" the policy framework at their 6:45 pm board meeting at the County Board Room, 2100 Clarendon Blvd #300 in Courthouse. Please consider coming out and letting the Board know that this is an unacceptable oversight in the plans for Rosslyn.

If you can't make it to a meeting, you can also send your thoughts to the County Board, the County Manager and the Principal Planner for Realize Rosslyn.

Transit


Arlington starts work on the region's first BRT line

Alexandria is putting the finishing touches on their part of the region's first Bus Rapid Transit line, the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway, and Arlington has begun work on their section. The transitway's first phase will open this summer, and it will be completely open in 2015.


Buses called "Metro Way" will serve the transitway. Image from WMATA.

This project will speed up bus service along the Route 1 corridor between Arlington and Alexandria by creating transit-only lanes. Buses will come every 6 minutes and will operate earlier in the morning and later at night. Stations will have real-time arrival screens and ticket kiosks to allow people to pay before boarding the bus, speeding up service.

Arlington has already created a limited-stop bus service, the Metrobus 9S, as a precursor to what's coming. In addition, a new Metrobus 9X route branded "Metro Way" will travel the entire busway between Braddock Road and Crystal City and continue to Pentagon City. Other buses will use the transitway as well, including the Fairfax Connector and private shuttles.

The transitway is a joint effort between Arlington, Alexandria, WMATA, and the federal government. It will serve Crystal City and Potomac Yard, which are both growing rapidly. Alexandria is planning a new Metro station at Potomac Yard as well. But many of these areas are too far to walk to that station or the existing Crystal City and Braddock Road Metro stations, so officials are hope the transitway will make them easier to reach.

Eventually, Arlington will run streetcars in the transitway that connect with the future Columbia Pike streetcar at the Pentagon City Metro station. Meanwhile, Alexandria no longer has any streetcar plans and will use the transitway for BRT indefinitely. Alexandria may also eventually add streetcars to their portion, but Alexandria's planning is on hold while they focus on their infill Metro station.

I asked county officials why Arlington didn't put in streetcar infrastructure in the first place. The federal government provided a grant for busway construction, and although Arlington is free to upgrade to streetcar later, the original construction has to follow that busway agreement. But Arlington's Capital Improvement Plan, to be released this spring, will include an updated streetcar construction schedule.


Rendering of a future BRT station from Arlington County.

This project has largely flown under the radar, and without the controversy that has followed other transit projects in Arlington like the Columbia Pike streetcar or the "million dollar bus stop." I asked why this was, and was told that the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway enjoyed a lot of community support from residents and businesses who want better transit service.

It seems that people generally agreed that the transitway could help make Crystal City easier to get around. And since the line passes mainly through office buildings and what are currently empty fields, there weren't the same concerns about gentrification on Columbia Pike. The county should definitely look at the specific differences for why these projects were received so differently, and how to apply those lessons in the future.

Bus ridership in the DC area is growing, and in some congested corridors, buses carry half of all traffic. Regardless of mode, dedicated transitways are a great way to provide dramatic improvements to transit riders. This will be a great BRT line, and eventually a great rail line as well. Metro Way and the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway are a big, but not final, step in the right direction.

Bicycling


Signs of bike boulevards pop up in Arlington

In 2013, Arlington began installing bike boulevards on the streets a block north and south paralleling Columbia Pike. The bike boulevards offer cyclists an alternative to Columbia Pike itself, which will one day have streetcar tracks.


Arlington bike boulevard street sign, with a wayfinding sign to the right. Photo by BeyondDC.

What's a bike boulevard?

Bike boulevards are slow-speed neighborhood streets where cars and bikes share lanes, but which are optimized for bikes. They're quiet local roads, usually lined with single-family houses, where there's such light car traffic that separated lanes for bikes and cars aren't necessary.

So far, Arlington's bike boulevards include special signs and sharrows. In the future they may add other elements, like specialized bike crossings at intersections, or improved trail links.

Bike boulevards are common on the west coast, but as far as I know Arlington's 9th Street South and 12th Street South bike boulevards are the first in the DC region.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Roads


VA legislative update: Bike safety bills advance, while some still try to limit Northern Virginia

As Virginia's legislative session continues, House Republicans are still trying to take local planning authority from Northern Virginia cities and counties. Two bicycle safety bills have moved forward. And Hampton Roads may get a regional transportation authority of its own.


Photo by William F. Yurasko on Flickr.

Bike bills seek to prevent "dooring"

Two bicycle safety bills have passed the Senate and are heading to the House of Delegates, including a bill that would require three feet of clearance when passing a cyclist. Another bill, Senate Bill 225, codifies that a car driver or passenger must ensure that the road is clear before opening their car door into traffic. And the House of Delegates passed HB 82, which specified that non-motorized transportation was included in the law that prohibits drivers following too closely.

However, two road safety bills that would have clarified a driver's duties to pedestrians in crosswalks were defeated in the House.

Delegates rewrite bill stripping Northern Virginia's ability to plan for itself

In our last update, we talked about HB 2, which would reduce Northern Virginia's ability to plan its own transportation projects. It's been significantly rewritten to put transit projects on more equal footing with roads and highways.

It will allow the state to evaluate projects on economic development, safety, accessibility, and environmental quality in addition to congestion relief, which would have been the only factor under the previous bill.

Meanwhile, HB 426, from Chantilly Republican Jim LeMunyon, has been tabled. It called for a "study" of transportation options on I-66 that only included more lanes for cars. It's unlikely that it will come up again this year.

But Delegate LeMunyon did get a House Bill 793 out of committee. That bill would have VDOT recommend specific transportation projects to the groups that plan these projects in Northern Virginia. Bills like this want to ensure that there's always someone advocating for highway projects that local governments may have already said they are not interested in. And this one violates the spirit of last year's transportation bill, which allowed Northern Virginia counties to plan for more public transportation solutions to congestion rather than pursuing a strategy that only focuses on newer and wider roads.

Another bill that we covered and is aimed at pushing a transportation solution that local counties may not want is House Bill 1244 from Delegate Tom Rust (R-Herndon), which would study and likely advocate for another highway crossing of the Potomac River as part of the Outer Beltway. It's been referred to the appropriations committee.

And HB 957, which would delay giving the state more control over VRE's executive board, passed the House. The bill initially called for repeal but this delay means that repeal can be considered again next year.

Good news for red-light cameras, Hampton Roads

The Hampton Roads area may soon be getting a local transportation planning authority similar to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority with HB 1253, which has moved out of committee. This may be a benefit to Northern Virginia since such a group could bolster the argument that transportation decisions can be answered effectively by local governments.

Meanwhile, House Bill 973, which would have repealed localities' authority to install red light cameras, has been defeated.

We'll keep you updated on what happens to these bills.

Transit


Europe's real streetcar lesson: Context matters

In the ongoing debate about where and when to build streetcars, the topic of whether they should run in mixed-traffic or dedicated lanes is a major point of contention. But outside the ivory tower of the blogosphere, it's not an ideological question so much as a contextual one.


Like many cities, Portland builds both. Photo by BeyondDC.

Virtually all transit advocates agree that both rail and buses run better when you give them a dedicated right of way. But since real life isn't SimCity, cities only dedicate space to transit where the geographic and political context allows.

For most cities, that means dedicated transitways sometimes, and mixed-traffic others.

But Stephen Smith, who blogs at Next City and Market Urbanism, has made it a point to categorically attack mixed-traffic streetcars:

Smith admits that Europe does build mixed-traffic streetcars, but argues theirs usually have fewer and shorter mixed-traffic segments.

While the lines Malouff mentioned do at times travel in lanes with cars, these segments are, with one exception, very short.
That's true. It's because European cities are starting from a stronger transit context than most US cities. Many of them still run their original mixed-traffic trolley networks, so they don't need to build those now. Meanwhile, with such convenient transit networks already in place, taking lanes from cars is more politically palatable.

Yet still, Stephen admits that European cities use mixed-traffic when the context is appropriate.

Of course that's what they do. That's what US cities do too. That's what everyone does.

That's why DC's east-west streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on H Street but will have a dedicated transitway downtown, why Arlington's streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Columbia Pike but in a transitway in Potomac Yard, and why Seattle's South Lake Union streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Westlake Avenue but in a transitway on Valley Street.

Context is why Tacoma and Houston have transitway streetcars, while Tucson and Atlanta will have the exact same vehicle models running in mixed-traffic. It's why Salt Lake City's "light rail" sometimes runs in the street, while its "streetcar" runs in an old freight corridor. And it's why Portland runs a mixed-traffic streetcar line and a dedicated-lane light rail one on perpendicular streets through the same intersection.

And it's why half the cities in Europe run a combination of mixed and dedicated trams.

That isn't an argument for or against mixed-traffic streetcars, nor for or against BRT, nor for or against anything. It's an admission that everyone builds the best thing they can based on the circumstances of where they are, who they are, and what they're trying to accomplish.

It's an admission that context matters, and we all make decisions based on real world constraints and opportunities rather than black and white dogma.

Don't use hypothetical perfects to ruin real life goods

Smith is right that every streetcar line in America that's planned to run in mixed-traffic would be better if it had a transitway. Every one. In the places where dedicated lanes aren't proposed, it's totally appropriate to ask why not, and advocate for their inclusion. Transit advocates should absolutely be doing that.

But if we don't get everything we want, we need not take our ball and go home. There are plenty of benefits to streetcars besides where they run, plenty of room for meaningful transit improvements even without a lane.

Sometimes there's a good reason for running in mixed-traffic. Probably not as often as it actually happens, but sometimes. For example on Columbia Pike, where Arlington is prohibited from taking lanes.

Even if the only reason is political, as it seems to be in Cincinnati, some places face such a monumental uphill battle to get anything transit-related done, even a single mixed-traffic streetcar can raise regional transit ridership by almost 10%. That's a huge victory in a place where holding out for something perfect would likely kill the project completely.

What transit advocates shouldn't be doing is falsely claiming that nobody except misguided Americans builds streetcars. It's not true and it's not helpful. Broad brush attacks lead others to pen bogus anti-rail screeds with misleading information.

So by all means, let's do more to fight for transitways. But in our attempts to do so, let's not tear down the places that for whatever reason are merely capable of making good investments instead of perfect ones.

For the record, the same argument is true for BRT. Sometimes it's the right answer, even though BRT creep, where costly transit features are stripped away to save money, is often a problem.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Politics


For Arlington County Board: Alan Howze, Peter Fallon

This Thursday and Saturday, Arlington voters who consider themselves Democrats will vote for a nominee to replace Chris Zimmerman on the county board. Greater Greater Washington recommends voting for Alan Howze, followed by Peter Fallon, in the instant runoff vote.


Alan Howze. Photo from the candidate's website.

The Arlington Democrats use a "firehouse caucus" to choose their nominees. Anyone can vote in it who is a registered voter and who is willing to sign a pledge basically saying he or she is a Democrat and will not support a candidate other than the Democratic nominee.

Voters can cast their votes on Thursday night, January 30, from 7-9 pm at Francis Scott Key Elementary School, or Saturday, February 1 from 11 am to 7 pm at Kenmore Middle School. Three candidates are vying for the nomination: Alan Howze, Peter Fallon, and Cord Thomas.

It's an instant runoff election, which means voters can rank their choices, and if their first choice gets eliminated for having the fewest votes, their vote still counts toward the second (and so on, but with only 3 candidates, there are at most 2 rounds).

Arlington has more than one policy issue, but the fact is that this race is turning largely on one: the Columbia Pike Streetcar. 4 of 5 members of the County Board strongly support the project, but there is a very active contingent of people in the county who want to stop the streetcar. They helped elect Libby Garvey in 2012, who has fiercely railed against the streetcar in office.

Streetcar opponents would like to expand their caucus to two, and are backing Cord Thomas, who formerly co-founded Envirocab and now co-owns Elevation Burger. Thomas initially kept quiet about the streetcar, but more recently came out against the project. To the extent party affiliation is important, it's also somewhat unclear if Thomas is or has been a Democrat.

Both Alan Howze and Peter Fallon say they will support the community's plans to improve transit along Columbia Pike by supplementing the existing buses with streetcars. This investment in the community dovetails with the existing Columbia Pike development plans, which include a significant contribution to affordable housing that will only be possible if high-quality transit attracts developers. Additionally, the increased density that will come as part of the plan will only be possible if the new residents are able to get where they're going without getting in their cars.

Alan Howze worked for former Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher and Governor Mark Warner. He impressed Michael Perkins when he ran (unsuccessfully) for an open seat in the House of Delegates in 2009. Howze has a strong position paper on the streetcar, where he clearly lays out the economic and environmental benefits. That helped him win the Sierra Club's endorsement.

Peter Fallon has experience working with the county government, most recently on the Planning Commission. The planning commission is one of the most challenging appointed positions in the county, and his experience with the process and history of Arlington's plans and decisions is and would be a great asset to the community.

In our poll of contributors, all of our Virginia residents who voted said that they like both Howze and Fallon, but all felt the scale tips in favor of Howze based on his public statements at events and in response to questionnaires like the one from Arlington Streetcar Now.

While it is a close call between the two, both are clearly better for Arlington than Thomas. Therefore, we encourage Arlington voters who identify as Democrats to cast their votes for Howze first and Fallon second, or for those who prefer Fallon, vote for Fallon first and Howze second, on Thursday night or Saturday.

The winner will compete against independents and candidates of other parties in the special election, whose date has not yet been set. The winner of that contest will also have to run for re-election in November.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington, written by one or more contributors. Active regular contributors and editors voted on endorsements, and any endorsement reflects a strong majority or greater in favor of endorsing the candidate.

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