Arlington: A Streetcar That Is Undesired

20 Jul

How about a “streetcar” without all of the expense of laying track in the pavement?     Its called the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway, featuring blue Metroway buses, and is expected to begin service Aug 24.   Initially, Metroway buses will connect the Braddock Road and Crystal City Metro stations with multiple stops between the two. The transitway eventually will extend to Pentagon City.  Service will run every 12 minutes Monday through Friday and every 20 minutes on weekends. Buses will run until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights.

The service in Alexandria includes travel lanes built exclusively for buses on U.S. 1 in Potomac Yard from Potomac Avenue to East Glebe Road. On some less busy portions of the Alexandria route buses will share travel lanes with regular commuters. For now Metroway buses in Arlington will share the road with regular traffic.

So, what happened to the streetcar that Arlington wants to build?   Well, that plan did not go away — even though the “Metroway” clearly shows it is unnecessary with a less expensive alternative.      And, if you want it electrified, all they have to do is add overhead wires and used electric buses (which look just like streetcars, but don’t require rails, and are more maneuverable).   Such busses are used on the “Silverline” in Boston which takes commuters directly to the airport terminal.

In a contentious three-hour session Thursday, July 17, the Arlington board members traded verbal barbs over the Columbia Pike streetcar project, and whether last week’s announcement that the state of Virginia is willing to pay for half the cost of the line can really be trusted.

Libby Garvey (D) and John Vihstadt (I) tried to use a normally routine workshop meeting on the county’s capital improvements projects to stop the long-planned transit project in south Arlington. They proposed a series of motions to stop all spending on the streetcar plans, but they lost almost all on 3-2 votes.

Vihstadt described the county’s publicity about the streetcar, which includes a series of online videos, to be “a costly and well-scripted Madison Avenue-like public relations campaign to sway public opinion, especially at a time when the funding scheme is in doubt… is an inappropriate expenditure of public funds.”

When Garvey argued that adding modern buses to the fleet that already plies Columbia Pike are a “proven” mode of transportation and that streetcars run at half the speed of buses, Fisette fired back “I disagree factually with everything you’ve said in that statement.”

When Garvey tried to persuade her fellow officials that money devoted to streetcar construction could be used for other purposes, Fisette had enough.

Vihstadt argued that the debate, which he characterized as civil and robust, was long overdue on a County Board that had supported the streetcar project without dissent. But in 2012, Garvey, who won a special election without taking a stand on the streetcar, abstained during a crucial vote. Two months later, in throes of her general election campaign, she became an opponent.

Vihstadt startled Arlington’s political establishment when he became the first non-Democrat in 15 years to win a County Board seat this past April. He replaced streetcar advocate Chris Zimmerman, who resigned in February. Vihstadt’s campaign was based on his opposition to the streetcar and other costly capital projects. He’s running against the same Democrat, Alan Howze, in November.

County officials now want to connect the project to a separate Crystal City to Potomac Yard rapid bus transit line that will eventually become a streetcar line as well. That segment would connect to the city of Alexandria’s bus rapid transit project that will run from Potomac Yard to the Braddock Road Metro station. They hope to have it open by 2020.

The County Board majority has rejected calls for a voter referendum on the topic.