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VA legislative update: Hybrid tax going, but bills to limit Northern Virginia remain

As the Virginia legislative session continues, lawmakers in Richmond have agreed to remove the hybrid car tax, and successfully defeated an attempt to take away Northern Virginia's ability to plan and fund its own transportation projects. But several destructive bills, including one that could force the state to widen I-66 in Arlington, are still on the table.

Photo by Mrs. Gemstone on Flickr.

Hybrid car tax poised for repeal

Several lawmakers introduced bills to repeal a tax on the sale of hybrid cars, which the state passed last year. One such bill has now passed both houses and Governor Terry McAuliffe says he will sign it.

The original bill's justification was to make sure that hybrid car owners who use less gas, and thus pay less in gas taxes, still contribute to maintaining state roads. But its critics contend that the $64 tax is an inefficient way to make up for the lost revenue and unfairly punished hybrid drivers who are helping the environment by using less gas.

Attempts to limit Northern Virginia's choices narrow

Legislators have tabled several bills that sought to restrict the power of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), which selects and funds transportation projects in that area. Instead, Republicans want Richmond to decide what gets built there, especially if it involves widening and building new highways.

Meanwhile, House Bill 658, sponsored by David LaRock (R-Sterling), would limit "transit, rail, and public transportation" to get at most 25% of Northern Virgnia's transportation funds. Not only is that an arbitrary standard, but it ignores how transit is already moving people and reducing highway congestion.

This proposal could prevent good transit projects from happening. If the region wants to ramp up a major new Metrorail, light rail, streetcar, or bus rapid transit project and spend more in one year than another, this cap would severely limit that ability. Besides, Northern Virginia should be able to choose how much to spend on different transportation priorities as it sees fit.

Bill would rate transportation projects on "congestion reduction"

Meanwhile, the legislature is still debating HB 2, which would require that the state pick transportation projects based on how much they are "expected to provide the greatest congestion reduction relative to cost." This relies on defining congestion solely as how many cars can move through an area, which automatically puts public transit at a disadvantage.

By its very nature, transit doesn't involve moving cars, and often requires a higher initial investment than a road project of comparable size. This proposal also ignores the ancillary benefits of transit, like lower pollution and the ability to tie transportation to land use, which can reduce overall car trips and conserve land.

"Study" bills push wasteful highway projects

A few bills require the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to conduct studies of highway projects their authors really want to see built. HB 426, by Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) demands a study of adding extra lanes (that aren't subject to HOV restrictions) on I-66 inside the Beltway in Arlington and Falls Church.

The original bill would have forced the I-66 widening to be part of VDOT's capital plan. LeMunyon changed it to only require a study, which means that even if it passes, it wouldn't necessarily mean the project happens. However, once a study gets finished, it's a lot easier for a sympathetic future administration to turn it into reality, and gives project supporters something concrete to push for.

The language doesn't allow VDOT to consider any sort of transit alternative to widening the highway, even though there is a rapid transit option, the Orange Line, literally running down the middle. It already assumes that the only solution for I-66 is more lanes for cars. Besides, VDOT already studied widening I-66, and the results show that general purpose lanes are not effective, while HOV, managed toll lanes and express bus perform better.

Another bill, HB 1244 by Thomas Rust (R-Fairfax) would push forward on studies to build an Outer Beltway with new bridges over the Potomac outside the Beltway. This would stimulate more car-dependent sprawl on what is now rural land at the region's edge.

Maryland opposes the idea, in order to protect its rural land in Montgomery's Agricultural Reserve and Charles County in southern Maryland. It instead wants to add capacity, for transit or cars, on the American Legion Bridge between Potomac and McLean, and is widening the Route 301 Henry Nice Bridge south of Washington. Despite this, former Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton initiated a study about potential new bridge locations. HB 1244 would make VDOT take the results of that study and recommend specific options.

Things are still very busy in Richmond. We are seeing the effects of local debates regarding Northern Virginia's transportation future reverberate at the state capitol just as hotly as they were contested back home. Bills rise and fall very quickly in the Virginia legislature, and we will keep you up to date on what is happening.


Come see Clybourne Park, then talk about it with us

In 2011, we organized a group outing to see Clybourne Park, the award-winning play about gentrification in Chicago, at the Woolly Mammoth. Come see it with us again next month in Arlington!

Image from the Arlington Players.

The Arlington Players will stage the show for its local community theater debut Sunday, February 9 at 2:30 pm at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre in Arlington. Then, we'll have an open discussion with the director, cast, and some of your favorite GGW contributors.

The play opens in 1959, in Chicago's Clybourne Park neighborhood, the same time and place depicted in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, before jumping to the present. It weaves themes of race and gentrification with dialogue on zoning and commute times.

A white family is moving out, and one of their neighbors is concerned because they sold the house to what the neighborhood's first African-American family. 50 years later, the neighborhood is almost exclusively black, and now a young white couple has bought the house and plans to replace it with a McMansion. Not surprisingly, the characters show no comfort in addressing the big issues that lay before them, preferring to dance around them as much as possible.

The theater's located at 125 S. Old Glebe Road, a little over a mile from both the Ballston and Virginia Square Metro stations. It's also accessible by Metrobus routes 10B, 23A, 23C, and 4A as well as ART route 41. You can purchase tickets here. And if you can't make our outing, you can still catch the play between January 31 and February 15 at 8:00 pm on Friday and Saturday nights and on Sunday afternoons at 2:30 pm.


Events roundup: More zoning and lots of Metro

Over the next few weeks, get ready to talk about DC's zoning update, discuss the future of Metro, tell Montgomery County how to spend its money, join us for the next Greater Greater happy hour, and more.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Testify on zoning: The DC zoning update is in its home stretch! The Zoning Commission still wants to hear from more residents, and supporters of allowing more walkability and affordability need to speak up at the hearings on February 8-13.

If you want help formulating what to say, have questions about the proposed changes, or just like hanging out with fellow planning activists, join the Coalition for Smarter Growth this Wednesday, January 22 for a happy hour in Dupont Circle at the Big Hunt, 1345 Connecticut Avenue NW, from 6 to 7:30 pm. RSVP here.

Below the jump: a roundtable discussion on WMATA with Eleanor Holmes Norton, Richard Sarles, David Alpert and more; learn about Metro's plans for Arlington; and join us for happy hour in Silver Spring.

Talk transit with David and Congresswoman Norton: Eleanor Holmes Norton is hosting a public roundtable discussion on issues facing WMATA on Wednesday, January 22 at One Judiciary Square, 441 4th Street NW.

General Manager/CEO Richard Sarles; Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689; Klara Baryshev, chair of the Tri-State Oversight Committee; and Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert will talk about how Metro is changing, ways to finance future improvements, and how to improve ridership.

The future of Metro in Arlington: WMATA has big plans for Metro all over the DC area: a loop, new stations, and a new tunnel. Arlington County is central to many of these plans. Come hear Shyam Kannan, WMATA's Director of Planning, speak about how Metro can balance aging infrastructure, a growing DC area population, and its plans for improving the Metro system in Arlington County and beyond.

This event is Thursday, January 23 from 6 to 8 pm at Founders Hall on George Mason University's Arlington campus, located at 3351 Fairfax Drive. Please RSVP here for this exciting event.

Come to happy hour with us!: Join the Greater Greater Washington community for our next happy hour at Urban Butcher in Silver Spring from 6 to 8 pm on Wednesday, January 29. Urban Butcher is located at 8226 Georgia Avenue, two blocks from the Metro, several bus routes, and Capital Bikeshare, so take your favorite type of transportation and come chat with fellow GGW readers and contributors.

Envision Southwest DC: The DC Office of Planning is working with area residents to create a Small Area Plan for the Southwest neighborhood. The Southwest Neighborhood Plan will focus on urban design, land use, and neighborhood preservation. OP is looking for a community-led vision for the neighborhood, especially for the future of several underutilized, District-owned properties.

Share your ideas for making life in Southwest even better this Saturday, January 25 from 10 am to 12 pm at the Capitol Skyline Hotel, located at 10 I St SW. For more info, check out the neighborhood plan website.

Shape the Montgomery County budget: Have some ideas on Montgomery County's budget? Discuss the FY 2015 operating budget with Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett at one of two remaining budget forums. Residents are encouraged to attend to help Leggett and County Council understand budget needs and priorities, particularly for transportation projects and the ongoing revitalization of Wheaton and White Flint.

The last two forums are Monday, January 27 at the Mid-County Community Recreation Center, 2004 Queensguard Road, and Wednesday, January 29 at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place in downtown Silver Spring. Both forums are from 7-9 pm.


Virginia General Assembly rolls up its sleeves

Virginia's 2014 General Assembly is officially in session. As usual, there are plenty of proposed bills that could affect urban areas. Here are some of the key ones to follow.

Virginia flag image from

Bills that look promising:

  • SB97, requiring car drivers to leave three feet of clearance when passing a bicyclist.
  • HB761, allowing local governments to hire transit fare inspectors and to collect fines from fare violators. This will be necessary for any future streetcars that use a proof of payment fare structure.
  • HB626, changing the formula used to distribute transportation funds around the state, eliminating a provision that took $500 million off the top and allocated it to highways.
  • SB320, sponsored by Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington), allowing jurisdictions in Northern Virginia to implement plastic bag fees.
  • HB212, prohibiting drivers from holding pets while driving.
  • HB482, making failing to wear a seatbelt a primary offense, allowing police to stop and ticket people for that alone.
Bills that look troubling:
  • HB2, limiting transportation funding going to the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads construction districts to only projects that reduce highway congestion. Safety projects, maintenance projects, many transit and bike/ped projects, and just about everything else would be excluded.
  • HB40, HB41, HB425, HB635, and several others that all seek to reduce Northern Virginia's authority to build its own transportation projects, especially transit.
  • HB426, requiring VDOT to widen I-66 in Arlington.
  • HB281, restricting Northern Virginia from partnering with DC or Maryland on transportation projects, unless the costs are born exactly equally.
  • HB160, giving courts authority to reduce charges currently defined as "reckless driving" to merely "speeding."
  • HB792, requiring Northern Virginia communities to rewrite their zoning ordinances to restrict the number of housing units smaller than 500 square feet.
  • HB908, defining Uber as a "contract passenger carrier" rather than a taxicab, effectively removing any ability of localities to regulate it.
Other bills of interest:
  • HB870, providing a tax credit to companies that build their own infrastructure, including new roads.
  • SB505, a huge bill enacting a broad range of incentives for the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel.
  • HB560, allowing VDOT to grant Right of Way (ROW) permits to certain types of private companies, instead of only to public utilities.
  • HB691, creating a "Prince William Metrorail Improvement District," to begin the process to extend Metro into Prince William County.
  • SB156, requiring that either toll rates for E-ZPass users and non-E-ZPass users be set the same, or requiring the operator of a toll road to pay the annual fee for all E-ZPass users living within 50 miles of a toll road. This bill comes from Senator John Miller of the Hampton Roads area, where they are debating controversial proposals to let private operators collect tolls in exchange for rebuilding tunnels. But if the law passes it would also include much of Northern Virginia.
  • SB1, from Adam Ebbin again, that would repeal a higher tax on hybrid-electric cars. The tax was originally imposed to make up for such cars contributing less to the gas tax. Ebbin questions whether taxing more efficient vehicles is the best way to solve that issue.
  • HB122, defining three-wheeled mini cars that kind of look like hardcore golf carts with bigger engines as "autocycles" and regulating them in various ways. It's not a coincidence that this bill comes from Edward T. Scott, delegate from the very district that's home to the first autocycle manufacturing plant in the US.
  • HB475, legalizing pedestrians stepping into the roadway to solicit charitable contributions.
  • HB255, requiring red light cameras to have yellow light phases lasting at least three seconds.
It's going to be an exciting year, with numerous bills to root both for and against. There are also a lot of bills about the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and how Virginia will allocate the money from last year's transportation funding deal. We'll talk about those next week.


Live chat with Chris Zimmerman

We're talking with Chris Zimmerman today from 12-1. Zimmerman is stepping down after 17 years on the Arlington County Board to work for Smart Growth America.

Update: The chat has ended. Here is the transcript, edited only for formatting, to correct typos and punctuation, and to insert paragraph breaks.

Michael Perkins: Hi and welcome to our Greater Greater Washington live chat. We have with us today as our guest Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County Board member for the past 18 years. Mr. Zimmerman will be retiring from the board within the next couple weeks to work for Smart Growth America. Thanks for joining us today, Chris.

Chris Zimmerman: Glad to be here (virtually speaking).

Michael Perkins: just a note to anyone joining us today, you can submit a question for the chat by typing /msg perkinsms and then your question. I'll pick some to include. Chris, let's start out with Arlington and your experience on the board. How has Arlington changed in nearly two decades?

Chris Zimmerman: Well obviously the vision for Arlington as a TOD-based community has blossomed into reality; in the 90s it was still more of a plan, something hoped for. Beyond the growth of the R-B corridor, we've also extended the vision of a walkable, transit-oriented community to non-Metrorail places.

Michael Perkins: In the 90s Arlington was one of the first communities to try some smart growth principles. What was the reaction at the time?

Chris Zimmerman: That has resulted in transit service being extended county-wide (ART), sidewalk improvements, bike facilities throughout the County, etc. In the 90s we didn't have the smart growth vocabulary, so it was a little less cohesive as a shared vision. Most people supported the idea of transit, but there was less consensus on what we wanted to be as a community.

Many people were concerned about traffic in neighborhoods, for instance. That can become an anti-development movement (as happens in many places), or it can be the basis of a movement for greater walkabilitypedestrian safety, safe routes to schools, good urban design, etc. We took the latter path.

Michael Perkins: Right now there's a big debate going on in Arlington about the plan to add streetcars to Columbia Pike/Pentagon City/Crystal City. At least two of the declared board candidates are opposed to streetcar. How will the streetcar plan fare after you leave the board as one of its strongest advocates?

Chris Zimmerman: There has been strong for the streetcar plan consistently since the first approval in 2006. A solid majority in both the Arlington and Fairfax Boards is committed to realizing it. They recognize that completion of the streetcar system is a vital part of our economic and fiscal future.

Michael Perkins: Some of the candidates would prefer an option like enhanced buses, which some people call BRT. How did the county evaluate streetcar against BRT and choose its preferred option?

Chris Zimmerman: The debate over streetcar in Arlington parallels that over every rail project anywhere in America, especially in recent years. Opponents use "BRT" as a tactic, usually not because they want BRT, but because they are interested in stopping a transit project.

Michael Perkins: Part of the problem with BRT is that the concept is not concrete enough to know what you're getting. In some ways the Pike Ride bus system is very close to the best BRT we could have on the pike.

Chris Zimmerman: BRT is an important component in an overall strategy for regional mobility. It is not a substitute for streetcar in an application to the kind of corridor we are working with. Most significant to the decision with Columbia Pike, however, was simply that we realized we did not have a BRT option. We could add more buses, but that isn't BRT.

As you say, folks aren't necessarily sure what BRT means. That makes it easy to make up false comparisons in which there is a "far cheaper alternative", which isn't really an alternative at all, and wouldn't bring the benefits we're seeking.

Michael Perkins: A question from Canaan: "A lot of people criticize the Columbia Pike streetcar because it won't have dedicated lanes. But Mr. Tejada pointed out that is because VDOT won't allow a lane to be taken away from cars. What made you decide the project was worth it anyway, and if VDOT changed their mind would that mean the board would likely support a new design even if it meant some sort of delay?"

And a side note, is the decision to have a dedicated lane something VDOT could revisit with the county at a later time?

Chris Zimmerman: A dedicated lane for transit is always to be desired. However, when the analysis was done it was found that there would be relatively little travel-time benefit. This is because the east-west flow on Columbia Pike is actually quite good. And of course, the distances are not great. So, a dedicated lane was found not to be essential to achieving high quality transit service.

On the other hand, the quality of the service (particularly in terms of rider experience) can be greatly enhanced with street-running rail. And, yes, at some point in the future the state can decide it wants to convert car lanes to transit lanes.

Michael Perkins: A question emailed in from Rick Rybeck: "What do you think about the use of 'value capture' to fund transit and about its ability to promote more compact and affordable development?" I know this is something the County has done under your leadership in the Crystal City area.

Chris Zimmerman: I think value capture will likely be key to significant transit improvements and TOD in the US in coming years. This is of course a large component of our plan for streetcar in Arlington. The Crystal City plan adopted in 2010 included creation of a TIF for the purpose of funding transportation improvements, most especially the streetcar. We have had that in place for several years now, and it can fund most of the cost of the Crystal City-Pentagon City-Potomac Yards portion of the line.

Michael Perkins: A question from David Alpert: "There seems to be a very loud contingent of people stridently opposed to the transit and smart growth vision that Arlington has held to for so long. Is that new, or just more visible because of social media like Twitter? Is it because now it's moving into new areas like Columbia Pike, versus building out R-B and CC-PY?"

Chris Zimmerman: I think that today there is a loud contingent of strident people opposed to all kinds of things, everywhere. The Internet is wonderful in many ways. One of the ways is the ability to create virtual communities, to connect people who would never have been in contact with each other. It is also a megaphone, that amplifies voices of a few (often a good thing).

These qualities have a profound impact on public discourse, however, and I don't think we have entirely worked out (as a society) how to process all of it. Among its impacts is the "nationalizing" of all discussion, so that trends that are running in a larger political conversation (state, national) are quickly transformed into local memes. This makes for a very robust discussion at the local level, which can be a very good thing, but it can also be distorting, giving a funhouse mirror look to policy dialogue.

Michael Perkins: Some cities around the country are just starting to look at Smart Growth/Transit oriented development. What advice do you have for these cities? What are the low-hanging fruits that are good "first steps" to take?

Chris Zimmerman: First thing is to assess what assets you already have in place. A grid of streets? A good Main Street? Legacy buildings? Etc. Your greatest returns will come from using these as anchors. Remember that the key objective in any such development patternwhether in a major metropolis or a small villageis proximity. The value of small spaces is the key. People tend not to realize just how much can be accomplished with very little real estate.

If you're starting with nothing, get one or two good blocks done. If you've got one or two good blocks, build on to them. After that, you can talk about how much you want to invest in transit and other infrastructure. But the focus has to be on creating great places, places people want to be in, and connecting them to everyone.

Michael Perkins: You're leaving the board after nearly 20 years. How do you think working for a national organization will change how you can advocate for Smart Growth compared to being an elected official?

Chris Zimmerman: As an elected official I've had the opportunity to work very intensively on one communitymy ownand have an impact on how it has developed. I'm very excited for the opportunity to help with this work on a wide variety of communities, all across the country.

Some are similar to Arlington, or to where Arlington was 20 or 30 years ago; others are very different, in size, demographics, economy, etc. But all have challenges in common, and for all there are basics that can improve the quality of life, the state of the environment, and their economic and fiscal health.

I've believed for a very long time that the issues of how we build our communities, how we create the places in which we live, work, and playhow we use the scarce resource of land has a profound impact across a great range of issues, environmental, social, and economic. So, I think I'm very fortunate to be able to work with people who are trying to make a difference with these policies all over America.

Michael Perkins: We have about 10 minutes left in the chat. If you're listening in you can send a question in by typing /msg perkinsms and your question. I may not get to them all.

Michael Perkins: I'm going to shift to Metro. The original Metro system was built using money that was shifted from a large highway system that the region largely didn't need and didn't want. The original Metro system is now running into capacity constraints, especially on the orange line.

How are we going to be able to afford upgrades to the core capacity of the system? I see a lot of plans on what capacity upgrades we could make, but I don't see something out there that signifies the $5-10B we are likely going to need to start.

Chris Zimmerman: That's really a question of political will. The original system (actually only partly funded by shifting money from highways) represented an enormous fiscal commitment from all levels of government. In real terms, the funding needed now is far smaller relatively to our fiscal capacity. The difference now is almost entirely in attitude. We've made it hard to raise money for anything government does. But if we want to have a first-class transportation system, it is entirely within our means to do so.

Michael Perkins: In your organizational statement you mentioned that we seemed to be "gripped by a 'can't do' mentality." How do we overcome that?

Chris Zimmerman: The "we" I was referring to was the nation; so, unfortunately, this is a problem of politics. For the most part, people here in the National Capital Region have not been consumed by this malaise. Recent "controversies" however, illustrate how this mentality is being imposed on our policy dialogue. Even in places like Arlington.

But we don't have to succumb to it. We have the means to accomplish what we need to do. And my sense is that peoplethe majorityare ahead of leaders in being willing to move forward. So, advocacy is really important.

Michael Perkins: And with that I think we are done. Thank you very much for joining us.

Chris Zimmerman: Thank you.

Michael Perkins: Thanks to everyone for submitting questions and for listening in.


Events roundup: Bikeshare, beer, and big plans

Start the new year with events that reflect on transportation and smart growth in the region. And while you're at it, you can join friends for a beer.

Photo by Jeffrey Zeldman on Flickr.

The future of Union Station: Nerds in NoMa, the monthly speaker series on topics from transportation to beekeeping, is back this Tuesday, January 14 to discuss the proposed expansion and redevelopment in store for Union Station. Several officials will talk about the vision, including David Tuchmann of developer Akridge and Union Station planners Cindy Petkac and David Zaidain.

This free event is from 6-8 pm at The Lobby Project, located at 1200 First Street NE, and will have light fare, wine, and beer available for purchase. You can RSVP here.

After the jump: Bikeshare in Montgomery County, a live chat with Chris Zimmerman, happy hour with New Urbanists, and the next generation of Metro in Northern Virginia.

Hear about Bikeshare in Montgomery County: The Action Committee for Transit hosts Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, for a talk about Bikeshare's recent expansion into Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville last fall and how it's doing. This free meeting is tomorrow, Tuesday, January 14 at 7:30 pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building, located at One Veterans Place in downtown Silver Spring.

Live chat with Chris Zimmerman: After 18 years in office, Chris Zimmerman will step down from the Arlington County Board in February. Join us on Thursday, January 16 from noon to 1 pm for a live, moderated discussion about Zimmerman's accomplishments in Arlington and his future role at Smart Growth America. Details on how to join the conversation and submit questions are available here.

Right Proper urbanism: Later on Thursday, the DC chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism holds their monthly happy hour at the newly-opened Right Proper Brewing Company at 624 T Street NW in Shaw. Plan to arrive around 6 pm, and be on the lookout for a pink hat to find the group. Round up some friends by sharing the event's Facebook invite.

Metro and the future of Northern Virginia: Arlington continues their RoundAbouts Speaker Series with a talk next week about the county's part in Momentum, Metro's new investment and expansion plan. Shyam Kannan, WMATA's planning director, will speak about how major transit investments in Arlington play pivotal roles in not only the future of Northern Virginia, but also the future of the region as a whole.

This free event is next Thursday, January 23 from 6 to 8 pm at Founders Hall on George Mason University's Arlington Campus, located at 3301 Fairfax Drive. You can RSVP here.


Join Chris Zimmerman for a live chat next Thursday

After 18 years in office, Chris Zimmerman will step down from the Arlington County Board in February. Next Thursday at noon, join him for a live, moderated conversation about his accomplishments in Arlington, where the county's headed, and his future role at Smart Growth America.

Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

Zimmerman has been a defining leader in transportation and smart growth in our region, serving on the boards for VRE, WMATA, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. He's departing at a crucial moment for Arlington as it moves forward with streetcar projects along Columbia Pike and in Crystal City.

We'll conduct the chat via Internet Relay Chat, or IRC. If you're already familiar with IRC, join us at, channel #ggwdiscuss. If you don't have a client, you can use the web client by clicking here and picking a username.

During the chat, feel free to send me (perkinsms) your questions via private message like so:

/msg perkinsms <your question goes here>

What would you like to ask Chris Zimmerman? You can offer questions to ask before the discussion in the comments, or via email. Afterwards, we'll post the transcript. We'll see you next Thursday!


US streetcar boom takes off in 2014

Three other American cities in addition to DC will open new streetcar lines this year, and at least 12 more cities are expected to advance construction on lines that will open later.

Streetcar undergoing on-street testing in Tucson, Arizona. Photo from the City of Tucson.

The four lines expected to open in 2014 are in DC, Tucson, Seattle, and Atlanta. Tucson's Sun Link streetcar will be the first modern rail transit to open in that city. Seattle's First Hill streetcar will run next to a cycletrack for much of its length, in an impressive multimodal layout.

Atlanta's downtown streetcar will be the first modern streetcar to open in the US that doesn't use the ubiquitous 66' long streetcar model first popularized in Portland. Instead, Atlanta will use a 79' long tram similar to the light rail cars in Norfolk.

North of the border, Toronto will shortly begin to use new 99' long trams on its expansive streetcar network, the largest in North America.

Even more cities will begin construction or continue construction on new lines that won't open until 2015 or later. They include Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Tempe, San Antonio, and Saint Louis.

Many other cities, including Arlington, have streetcars that aren't expected to begin construction yet, but aren't far behind.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


With its biggest supporter gone, will the Arlington streetcar stay on track?

One of the Columbia Pike streetcar's biggest supporters has been Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. Now that he's stepping down, who takes his place could have a big impact on the project's future.

Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Of the four candidates running to replace Zimmerman in a special election this spring, one is opposed to the streetcar between Bailey's Crossroads and Pentagon City, while three others haven't shown strong support or opposition to it. But they are raising concerns about the streetcar's cost and the county's ability to manage projects like the million-dollar "Super Stop" and Long Bridge Aquatic Park, whose cost estimates are rising.

Meanwhile, streetcar supporters are gearing up to defend the embattled project. A study the county commissioned on the streetcar's economic benefits is due soon, and officials have yet to decide if it will once again seek federal funding to build it.

Streetcar looms over upcoming special election

One candidate for Zimmerman's seat, independent John Vihstadt, has already come out firmly against the streetcar project, citing it as one reason to break up Democratic Party control of the board. Vihstadt is a member of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, an anti-streetcar group, and has the support of Libby Garvey, the sole streetcar opponent on the county board.

None of the three candidates seeking the Democratic Party nomination at its caucus in January have indicated their position on the streetcar. Alan Howze comes the closest, listing endorsements from many streetcar supporters on his website, including board member Jay Fisette and retired State Senator Mary Margaret Whipple who penned a pro-streetcar op-ed back in April.

Meanwhile, candidate Peter Fallon notes on his website that the county must support both transit and driving. And the third Democrat, Cord Thomas, recently told ARLnow that he wants more analysis before deciding on whether he supports the streetcar or not.

The Democrats' reluctance to support the streetcar suggests that while Arlington is generally known for aggressive investments in transportation, the party base may be reconsidering its priorities. But a streetcar on Columbia Pike has been in discussion for years, and it's hard to believe that a politically active person in Arlington doesn't have specific opinions about it. And candidates only have a few weeks to make their views known before the caucus.

Tejada responds to critics

Sitting board members are continuing Zimmerman's push for the streetcar. Chairman Walter Tejada recently wrote an op-ed defending the streetcar in the Washington Post. He responded to specific criticisms made by Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, particularly about the project's estimated $310 million cost.

Tejada noted that that figure includes streetscape improvements, new bus stops, and burying utilities, things that would benefit everyone traveling on Columbia Pike, whether or not they are on a streetcar. He also explained why AST's proposed alternative, Bus Rapid Transit in a dedicated lane, wouldn't work on Columbia Pike due to a limited road width and the Virginia Department of Transportation's requirement that there remain four general travel lanes.

But he focuses on the biggest advantage of streetcars over buses: the ability to carry more people over time. "The bottom line is not difficult to grasp: Streetcars have up to 100 percent more capacity than buses and attract more riders," Tejada writes. "Providing more capacity on fewer vehicles and substituting streetcars for some bus routes will minimize the impact of expanded public transit on the street network, allowing other modes of travel, including cars, to continue to move freely."

County waiting on new study

In September, Arlington commissioned a new study on the streetcar's capacity and its return on investment, with the results due any day now. It will likely influence whether the county tries to secure funding from the FTA's New Starts program after it was rejected for funds from FTA's Small Starts program back in April.

The county is making decisions for other aspects of the Columbia Pike corridor as well. Officials recently approved an affordable housing plan which allows for tax increment financing and the transfer of development rights, which could preserve and increase the amount of affordable housing in the corridor.

Next year, streetcar service will begin in DC. Arlington could soon follow, but only if current and aspiring county officials fully commit to it.

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