With streetcar dead, Arlington ponders: What’s next?

So the Arlington streetcar is dead. And despite what residents, advocates and officials may think of the demise of the $333 million project, they’re all now asking: What’s next?

Almost half a century ago, leaders in Arlington and Fairfax counties were working to extend the Metro under Columbia Pike into Bailey’s Crossroads. They sold the idea to developers who constructed massive buildings in what’s now known as the Skyline neighborhood. Then, as Fairfax County Supervisor Penny Gross explains, the bottom fell out.

“The Metro stop at Skyline was taken off the plan because of Arlington opposition to that particular line,” says Gross, who represents the Mason District, which includes Skyline. “So getting this streetcar to Skyline was to rectify that.”

Now that plan has fallen apart too, opening a new conversation about the future of a rapidly growing corridor. So what’s the future of Columbia Pike?

Will Metro come to Columbia Pike?

“Well, really long-term it’s possible that Metro under Columbia Pike would be the long-term solution,” says Peter Rousselot, founder of a group known as Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, which helped kill the streetcar. “Right now, to the best of my knowledge, the Metro board of directors don’t have Columbia Pike on their so-called Momentum strategic plan that takes them out to 2035 or 2040.”

But that might not always be the case.

“In the really long term Metro might conclude that a Metro line there would be desirable,” says Rousselot, “If they did then I certainly think Arlington and other Northern Virginia jurisdictions should cooperate.”

For now the short-term solution is some kind of enhanced bus service on Columbia Pike. That’s also the plan for Crystal City, where a separate streetcar line has also been canceled. Coalition for Smarter Grown director Stewart Schwartz says enhanced bus service will not work in the long term.

“The studies have shown that there are limitations,” says Schwartz. “Eventually you are going to get heavy bus bunching and you will have obviously increased challenges with more drivers as our region continues to grow.”

Will there ever be a dedicated lane?

So what should Columbia Pike look like 20 years from now — or 50 years from now?

“Ideally you would have a dedicated transit lane in each direction, a through-vehicle lane in each direction and safer turn lanes,” says Schwartz.

But there’s a major obstacle standing the in the way of building dedicated lanes on Columbia Pike: the Virginia Department of Transportation. Schwartz says VDOT would make it difficult for that vision to become a reality.

“Well, VDOT has in the past refused to allow the conversation of the curb lane to a dedicated all-day transit lane,” says Schwartz. “So it would be, yes, very difficult.”

Schwartz says that means he would not be surprised if that means the streetcar issue might make a comeback at some point. And he’s not the only one.

“I personally hope that in the future there’s some way to reconsider or to resurrect some version of the streetcar,” says Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova.

Across the river in the District, city leaders are rethinking the scope of its planned streetcar system.

“What I think we need to do is just right-size the plan. We have a huge $1 billion plan on the table,” says D.C. Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser. “Most of us in the District are committed to what streetcar can do for our city, and so we’re going to look closely at what’s on the table and make sure we have a plan that is fund-able and able to get running.”

Whatever happens on Columbia Pike, both sides agree that it needs to happen soon. In the next 30 years, county leaders say, 65 percent of Arlington’s population growth will be along Columbia Pike and Route One — the two areas where the streetcar lines have now been cancelled.

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