A Streetcar Named Disaster

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.

4 thoughts on “A Streetcar Named Disaster

  1. Larry Petkov May 5, 2013 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    This is an excellent critique of this Boondoggle project which will soak the taxpayer and be unsafe also!

  2. Ms. Johnson July 29, 2013 at 8:21 am - Reply

    We don’t need a Trolley; we can just add more buses. The Trolley will push everyone making $60,000.00 income or less right out of Arlington and Alexandria due to the tax increases that will have to fund the Trolley. The tax increases will cause apartment rents to be raised and will force people to sell their properties because renters and property buyers/owners be taxed out of were they live at and will not be able to afford to keep up with the yearly increases. As a result the homeless population will increase and they will be sleeping on the so called new million dollar Trolley Terminals. We don’t need Terminals to live in, we need real affordable housing with basic bus transportation.

  3. Ms. Johnson July 29, 2013 at 8:42 am - Reply

    As consumers in Arlington, Virginia, we do not want the Trolley because it will get more expensive when we go shopping, eat out, or make purchases, which will cause residents to stop spending their money, in turn the businesses will go under and Arlington County, VA will loose tax revenue when the businesses shut down and workers in these businesses will lose their jobs. All we need is to have more jobs lost and have everything get too expensive. We don’t need a Trolley we need jobs and to be able to afford to spend as consumers. It’s will be a no win situation.

  4. Ms. Tibbits October 28, 2013 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    We live in a country with 3rd world public transport system – GAS costs more and more, and so do CARS, have you noticed?
    I just visited Amsterdam this year, and enjoyed the use of their trolley car system going everywhere – airport, different neighborhoods, etc.
    Yes, we will have to spend money as the roads are inadequate for the amount of drivers using them – the bus system is a disaster and not an answer to our problems. Reality knocks at the door!

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