On May 2 Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST) apprised voters of new developments in the Columbia Pike streetcar saga. First, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) rejected Arlington’s bid for $75 million in Small Starts funding, because Arlington low balled the cost at $250 million to meet the cost cutoff for such projects. Yet according to FTA the actual cost exceeds $310 million. So the project was disqualified.
Arlington plans to reapply for federal funds under the New Starts program. According to AST founder Peter Rousselot, the county’s prospects for funding under this source are dimmer, because the competition for funds is steeper. Next the county is likely to go after state funding. But the project isn’t even listed under those targeted for new transportation money recently approved the state legislature. Without state and federal funding, county taxpayers are likely to get left holding the bag, and the funding vehicle is likely to be a public-private partnership, whereby the county essentially awards a no bid contract to a private firm that assumes the upfront cost of the project and bills taxpayers for the portion that the fare box doesn’t pay.
According to Rousselot and Libby Garvey, the lone opposition voice on County Board, the cost alone makes trolley on the Pike a bad idea. AST transportation wonk Bill Vincent also pointed out that the County’s claims to the contrary, BRT (bus rapid transit) on the Pike would actually carry a lot more people than the trolley at a fraction of the cost.
I agree that at $310 million and rising, the cost of the Pike trolley is exorbitant and that if implemented will prove an albatross around the County’s neck. But the real problem with the trolley is the engineering. I recently visited two cities with trolley systems, Salt Lake City and Baltimore. In the former a trolley runs on two dedicated tracks in the middle of a six lane uncongested boulevard. In Baltimore a trolley runs on two dedicated tracks in the middle of a little used two lane street. In both cases the key to success is the use of dedicated tracks on an uncongested thoroughfare.
Columbia Pike has neither of these features. As one of the principal arterials in NoVA, it is a highly congested four lane road with no median and no additional right of way to build a dedicated track. Thus from an engineering standpoint Columbia Pike is singularly unsuited for trolley service.