Arlington cancels Columbia Pike streetcar project

The Arlington board voted Tuesday to put a stop to the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar lines, dealing a potentially devastating blow to transit-oriented, mixed-use developments planned for both corridors.

Citing strong, organized community opposition that caught streetcar supporters “flatfooted,” Arlington Board Chairman Jay Fisette announced Tuesday the lines would not move forward. By the mid-afternoon, the board had voted 4-1 to put a stop to all streetcar-related activity. Walter Tejada was the lone vote to keep the project going.

“My hope is that Arlington’s credibility in the region will not be adversely affected,” Tejada said, offering his apologies to Columbia Pike business owners whose investment in the corridor was based partly on the promise of the streetcar.

With the decision formalized, County Manager Barbara Donnellan will begin the process of ending the streetcar contracts and related funding agreements, and assessing the impact of the move on both Arlington’s land-use plans and its ability to achieve its affordable housing goals. It was only September that the board awarded a $26 million, multiphase contract to HDR Engineering Inc. to begin the design of the streetcar system.

“I believe that debating the streetcar issue further, with continued discord and dueling facts, will not serve our community and will distract us from addressing other pressing issues before us,” Fisette said during a hastily called press conference in the board chamber. “I have come to the conclusion that the only way to move forward together — to rebuild the civility and consensus that have been the hallmarks of our civic life and community success for decades — is to discontinue the streetcar project.”

Streetcar backers, Fisette said, did not “effectively make the case” for the streetcar benefits, that it would add jobs and revitalize entire communities without pulling money from the general fund. The recent general election that saw the victory of John Vihstadt, a streetcar opponent, to the Arlington board was the final straw. Vihstadt, who had won a special election to the board in April to replace transit-fan Chris Zimmerman, has described the project as a “financial and operational albatross.”

“This was a powerful message to the board,” Fisette said of Vihstadt’s win.

Vihstadt applauded the decision.

“I know that this decision did not come easily for my three County Board colleagues, who supported the streetcar,” the independent said in a statement, “but I applaud their concession to political reality and to the voices of Arlington voters, who, in two consecutive elections for County Board over the space of just seven months this year, endorsed our message that a streetcar makes no sense for Arlington from either a transit efficacy or an economic development perspective.”

The 4.9-mile Columbia Pike streetcar was to cost Arlington an estimated $268.1 million, and Fairfax County roughly $70 million. The 2.5-mile Crystal City line had a $217.4 million price tag. Both lines were expected to launch in 2020. With Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s backing, the state was heavily invested.

A study produced by HR&A Advisors Inc. for Arlington concluded that running streetcar along Columbia Pike — from Skyline in Baileys Crossroads to 12th and South Eads streets in Pentagon City — would net $2.2 billion to $3 billion more for the county over 30 years than enhanced bus, produce 4,600 more jobs over 10 years and generate $315 to $620 million more tax revenue. Streetcars offer, the authors said, a better rider experience, more riders, more capacity, more congestion relief and more developer and retailer interest.

Arlington board member Mary Hynes, while voting to end the streetcar, acknowledged the decision will drastically slow growth along Columbia Pike and in Crystal City, will limit Arlington’s ability to compete with its neighbors and will reduce funding available for core services.

“The Coalition for Smarter Growth is disappointed by the Arlington Board decision, but far more so by the deeply negative, and frequently inaccurate, campaign against the streetcar,” Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said in a statement. “Arlington’s proven smart growth track record had given us confidence in their analysis and ability to create a great transit corridor. The streetcar’s ridership capacity was integral to the plan to use density bonuses to preserve thousands of units of affordable housing.”

But it is time to move on, Fisette said, to focus on the “most pressing issues facing our communities.” This is the “Arlington Way,” he said — big decisions are made together, “through a long process of consensus building.” In the case of streetcars, there was limited consensus.

Instead, Arlington will target enhanced bus service. Board member Libby Garvey, who joined Vihstadt to oppose the streetcar, said she was looking forward to “work for something rather than trying to stop something.”

Fairfax County, in which a small but important piece of the Columbia Pike streetcar was to run, is “disappointed” in Arlington’s decision, Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova said in a statement. The effort will continue, however, to bring effective transit to Baileys Crossroads.

Like in Arlington, several proposed Baileys Crossroads developments touted — even depended on — their close proximity to a streetcar line. Foulger-Pratt’s 500-unit apartment pitch for 5600 Columbia Pike was one.

“Although we believe the decision to end the project is shortsighted, we recognize that the project cannot happen without the support of the Arlington Board,” Bulova said.

In Arlington, numerous major mixed-use developments, including Vornado’s planned PenPlace and ongoing Metropolitan Park project, sit on the streetcar lines. Some have integrated stops into their plans. Arlington’s success, Fisette said, is built on the connection between land use and transit access, and that will not change. But he could not say, at this point, what effect the streetcar decision may have on what amounts to billions of dollars worth of proposed development.

“Our message has to be that we are still committed to fulfill that vision and make the transit investments we need to ensure the success of the corridors,” he said.

Jim Dinegar, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said he worries about Arlington’s decision “rippling over to D.C.” He called Tuesday’s decision in Arlington “a mortal wound to the streetcar program” but also sees it as part of a broader “assault” on public transportation, including Maryland Gov.-elect Larry Hogan potentially killing the Purple Line and other plans.

“We have to be vigilant about public transportation,” Dinegar said. “There does seem to be an assault. We have to get out there and make the case. We can’t afford to backslide on this.”

Along those lines, Fisette said he was “saddened that tomorrow’s headline could be used in another city to bolster the arguments” against rail, a form of transit that he noted was “challenged” across the country.

Washington Business Journal staff writer Mark Holan contributed to this report.

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