Comments on Arlington County’s Columbia Pike Plan and Streetcar

Comments on Arlington County’s Columbia Pike Plan and Streetcar
(Agenda items 48 and 49)
July 23, 2012
Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director

The Coalition for Smarter Growth supports Arlington County’s Columbia Pike Plan and Streetcar proposal. We have monitored your planning process, studied the plan and technical analysis, and consulted with a range of stakeholders and experts. The plan reflects Arlington County’s strong record of consultation with the community, technical expertise, in-depth analysis, and experience integrating land use, transportation, housing and the environment. It is Arlington’s track record and experience as a national leader in transit-oriented development which give us confidence that Arlington will succeed with the complex implementation of this plan.

The key to a sustainable and equitable future for our region is a network of transit-oriented communities which mix a range of housing with jobs and services. We need the next generation of transit including streetcar, light rail, and bus rapid transit to expand high capacity transit service to more of our region, expanding access to jobs, reducing vehicle trips and fighting climate change. TOD not only maximizes transit trips but it also maximizes walking and bicycling trips as demonstrated by recent Council of Governments’ travel surveys.
In addition to these global reasons for supporting the plan, our support is also based on the following:

  • The planning process involved economic and fiscal analysis, transportation analysis, in-depth affordable housing finance and policy study, and top-flight urban planning consultants.
  • We concur that the market-rate affordable units will be lost over time due to price pressures and ongoing rehabilitation and redevelopment under existing conditions. Therefore it is critical to have a plan to incentivize the preservation and addition of long-term committed affordable housing. This plan achieves this with an incentive structure designed to replace 100% of the 4500 units of market rate affordable housing with committed affordable units — 2900 units at 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI) and 1600 units available at 80% of the AMI.
  • In addition to the 20%/25% density bonus structure, we encourage the focused implementation of other affordable housing tools outlined in your plan and we encourage consideration of recommendations two through five in the letter to the board submitted by affordable housing advocates.
  • The plan focuses height and density in the right places, with appropriate transitions to single-family home neighborhoods.
  • The plan includes new green spaces and preserves historic buildings and is sensitive to the unique conditions in each neighborhood along the pike.
  • New street connections and bike routes will offer safe alternatives for local trips.

We also support the streetcar, but recognize that reasonable people can disagree about this significant infrastructure investment. Concerns some have expressed include cost, the impact on bicycle routing and safety, and whether enhanced bus or bus rapid transit would be a more effective investment. However, having reviewed the technical analysis, considered the arguments made on all sides, and considered national experience, we believe the streetcar provides best fit for the needs of the corridor.

The streetcar is one leg in a three-part stool linking density, affordable housing, and transit. Higher density development is necessary as an incentive to preserve and expand committed affordable housing, while the streetcar incentivizes that development and while reducing the number of auto trips.

We agree with Mr. Miles Grant’s assessment in a recent Greater Greater Washington blog post that compared to recent highway projects, the streetcar is an effective investment. He cites the comparative ridership numbers as follows:

  • Beltway HOT lanes: $1.4 billion for 14 miles and estimated 66,000 users per day
  • Maryland Intercounty Connector: $2.6 billion for 18 miles and estimated 30,000 users per day
  • Columbia Pike Streetcar: $261 million price tag for 5-mile segment and estimated 26,000 riders per day.

The time has come to make bold new transit investments. At the same time, each potential transit corridor is different in terms of development and service needs and each community will have to make a decision based upon experience and alternatives analysis as to the best type of transit for each corridor. In the particular case of Columbia Pike, the streetcar appears to be the best long-term investment for a county with the nation’s strongest track record of linking transit and development.
Thank you.