As streetcar projects around the U.S. continue to be a magnet for either giddy anticipation or derision — and often both — officials last month voted to kill one such transit plan just outside of Washington, D.C. After an election last month where a county board member who had campaigned on an anti-streetcar platform won a seat by a large margin, the Arlington County Board voted to cancel its long-planned, 7.4-mile streetcar system.
John Vihstadt (I) won his seat in a low-turnout special election last year but on Nov. 4th, won re-election by a wide margin, again campaigning on an anti-streetcar platform. The election, board members said, was a proxy for voter sentiment against the streetcar, which was approved eight years ago and has been in the planning stages since.
“It was disappointing,” board chairman Jay Fisette says. In a statement he made last month, he elaborated: “We … were caught flat-footed when organized opposition to the streetcar surfaced in just the last year or so.”
Just outside of Washington, D.C., Arlington County has an exceptional smart-growth record, with an “incredible” track record of “planning and integrating land use, transportation and … housing,” Fisette says. Forty percent of transit trips in the Commonwealth of Virginia begin or end in Arlington, and while the county’s population has increased by 40 percent over the past three decades, traffic on many major arterials has remained at 1979 levels or even dropped.
So the decision to terminate the streetcar wasn’t just surprising, it was somewhat unprecedented in Arlington. Yet, the motion adopted by the board Nov. 18th authorizes the county manager to “terminate all … agreements the purpose of which are to implement the streetcar projects.” It also instructs the manager to research how the discontinuance of the streetcar will affect the county’s plans for transportation, development and affordable housing and to come up with an alternative solution.
Some advocates — including Fisette himself — are a little skeptical. “I continue to be … supportive of the streetcar as the preferred, the optimal way forward, for transit, for moving people, for creating place and for generating future revenue for the county,” he says.
Others are a bit more blunt. “Really, there’s no plan B,” says Stewart Schwartz, director of the D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, which supported the streetcar plan.
Streetcar opponents like Vihstadt argued that bus rapid transit would have been just as efficient but cost much less than the streetcar, whose price tag had reached $550 million. But on much of the streetcar’s proposed route on Columbia Pike, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) said it wouldn’t allow a dedicated lane for BRT (it wouldn’t have allowed a dedicated streetcar lane either). That makes true BRT impossible, “so what you’re really comparing it to is the most enhanced bus possible,” says Fisette, “with different features of the streetcar like off-board fare collection” or articulated buses with larger capacity. All those options are on the table for county staff to examine, but come with additional complications, Fisette notes.
Bendy buses would be the first in Northern Virginia, so the county would have to find a place to store and maintain them, which adds additional cost. Streetcar advocates have also noted the extra wear and tear on the road of hundreds of bus trips per day, and the costs of having to re-do some of the county’s planning work.
Affordable Housing Plan in Limbo
The streetcar was part of a plan for growing and preserving affordable housing in one of the remaining affordable areas of the increasingly wealthy Arlington.
“They [the county] worried that they were losing affordable housing through attrition,” Schwartz says. “Garden apartments were being upgraded with granite countertops and then rented back out at higher rents, resulting in gradual displacement over time.” To combat this, the county planned to incentivize development along Columbia Pike and offer density bonuses for developers willing to include affordable housing.
This area is now expected to attract two-thirds of the county’s population growth and half of its employment growth over the next 30 years, and some of that — no doubt spurred in part by the streetcar planning process — is already underway. Without the streetcar, that growth will either wither away, or grow as planned, but cause more traffic jams than the county wants.
What’s sad, Schwartz said, is how the debate turned. “This is a county … known for their consultation with the community over many years, and they’d done their homework,” he says. But there was a “concerted campaign” on the anti-streetcar side. “An election is the worst place to debate a complicated land use and transportation problem … so enough doubt was cast and the project went down.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.