Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Columbia Pike’s proposed streetcar line will help revitalize one of Arlington county’s busiest corridors. Nonetheless, the plan has stirred an unusual amount of controversy, especially with increased cost estimates published last December.

The project has the potential to bring a lot of benefits to the Columbia Pike corridor, the county and the region. There are three reasons in particular to look at the project favorably.

First, the project would enrich the area’s broader transit network. Second, it will help spur Columbia Pike’s ongoing revitalization. And third, it’s the latest chapter in the decades-long story of Arlington’s coordination of land-use and transit planning to develop successful communities.

Residents can give their input on the project online and at meetings on June 6 and 7.

Columbia Pike is the busiest local bus corridor in Virginia. Buses now come every 3 minutes in peak periods on some parts of the road. Streetcars’ higher capacity will help accommodate a projected increase in ridership in the corridor from 16,000 today to 25,000 when the line begins service.

Columbia Pike streetcar will strengthen the existing transit network

Even more importantly, the line’s benefits will extend beyond the immediate corridor. The project will connect to the regional Metrorail system, “extending the reach of Metro,” as Dennis Leach, Arlington’s Director of Transportation, put it in an interview.

Leach added that Metrorail “isn’t enough. To really get the full value out of these mixed-use neighborhoods that we’re planning, you need a whole range of travel options: local bus, good regional bus, and this high-quality surface rail along with all the other things we’re doing: improving sidewalks and crosswalks, building bike lanes and bike trails, putting in Capital Bikeshare, making sure that Zipcar is readily available … It’s all of those things together that make this work.”

The streetcar will enrich the current transportation mix, connecting at Pentagon City with the planned Crystal City streetcar line, which will run south into Potomac Yards. Eventually, the streetcar network could extend through Alexandria to the south, and elsewhere in Fairfax to the west.

The system will also connect with bus lines, enhancing the reach of the transit network well beyond the busy corridors that would be served by streetcars.

A recently updated study found that “cities with large, well-established rail systems have significantly higher per capita transit ridership, lower average per capita vehicle ownership and annual mileage, less traffic congestion, lower traffic death rates, lower consumer expenditures on transportation, and higher transit service cost recovery than otherwise comparable cities with less or no rail transit service.” Enlarging and enhancing our existing rail system will help Arlington and neighboring communities achieve these benefits.

Streetcars are integral to the long-standing Columbia Pike revitalization plan

The streetcar line is just one piece of the comprehensive effort to improve Columbia Pike, “one of the county’s busiest and most run-down corridors” according to the Washington Post.

The streetcar is part of a much bigger effort by Arlington County to revitalize the corridor. Arlington’s Transportation Bureau Chief, Stephen Del Giudice, summed it up in an interview: “The county made decisions that go back a decade to convert this auto-oriented strip to a transit-oriented main street. The vision for Columbia Pike is … to knit the community together around town centers and villages, and to connect them. And that’s one of the interesting things about streetcar. They serve not only a commuter, but they have proven to be a very good technology for capturing local tripmaking.”

In 1986, local civic representatives, business leaders, landowners, and Arlington County formed the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO) with the vision of “a vibrant and pedestrian-friendly urban corridor,” realized through planning along smart growth principles.

Steady progress crystallized in 1998. A revitalization plan called the Columbia Pike Initiative took shape with ample public input at numerous community meetings. The County Board adopted it 2002. The plan called for mixed-use buildings lining the sidewalks, and emphasized walkability and mass transit.

The next year, a voluntary “form-based code” encouraged new construction to follow that vision. Today, the code’s influence is clearly visible at large recent developments like Penrose Square and the adjacent Siena Park.

Streetcars strengthened the picture in 1999. WMATA “identified the Columbia Pike corridor as … well-suited for high-capacity fixed guideway transit service,” and a coalition of local governments reached a similar conclusion, according to an Arlington document.

In 2002, WMATA completed a study of rail transit’s feasibility on Columbia Pike and Leesburg Pike in Arlington and Fairfax Counties. In 2004, Arlington passed a rule that any future transit service on Columbia Pike must share its lanes with automobile traffic — effectively calling for streetcars.

The next step in the revitalization process, the Columbia Pike Transit Alternatives Analysis, or Pike Transit Initiative, added to the chorus for a streetcar solution. The two counties and WMATA considered various transit options, and in the spring of 2006, they approved what was called the “modified streetcar alternative.” Cheaper than the full streetcar option, it called for streetcars with 6-minute headways, using buses to achieve 3-minute headways during peak hours. This video provides an animated view of the route.

The last phase of the Columbia Pike Initiative is a Neighborhoods Plan, focusing on residential areas along the Pike. The County Board will consider adopting it in July. The draft CPNP takes advantage of the future streetcar line, concentrating density and reducing parking requirements near streetcar stops.

Streetcar plans are backed by County’s solid expertise

Arlington’s history of transit excellence, reflected in both national recognition and local surveys, means we can be confident in the county’s committment to the project’s success. The county’s experience with transit-oriented development goes back several decades.

“I know people are skeptical of big infrastructure investments,” said Dennis Leach. “Arlington has done very well by continuing to invest in infrastructure, by almost every measure. Real estate values, household employment, household income, retail sales per square foot, every single indicator is higher here than just about everywhere else in the country.”

When Metro was in its early planning stages, county leaders insisted on running the Orange Line under a main street instead of a cheaper route in the I-66 median. They spaced the stations to help create a continuous series of compact, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, each with its own sector plan, in addition to a corridor-wide land-use plan to guide development toward desired outcomes.

Arlington is a “very good” place to do business, according to 87 percent of business leaders in a 2007 survey. 40 percent cited transportation as the biggest reason. Residents are generally pleased, too: in a 2009 survey, 75 percent were very satisfied with the transportation system, and 95 percent of that group gave the county a high rating for quality of life.

As Del Giudice explained, “where the county made investments in transit that helped shape the community, it shaped people’s lifestyles. A lot of people live car-free or car-light, because they can take transit, walk, ride bikes, and they don’t need to use their cars. It’s an urban lifestyle, similar to what we see in urban cores. That’s the experience with the prior investments and decisions that were made.”

Rail transit investments have also yielded fiscal benefits for the county. The Metro corridors make up just 11 percent of land in the county, but account for about half of Arlington’s assessed land value — and tax revenues.

The county’s research shows household auto trips in the Metro corridors averaging 1.1 to 1.4 per day. For comparison, that number can be 6 to 8 in suburban areas of Arlington. Put another way, transit’s share of household daily travel is about 20 percent in Arlington’s Metro corridors; the regional average is 6 percent. (Columbia Pike is at about 12 percent.) The story is similar for walking and biking.

Arlington’s low reliance on cars explains how, as land use expert Chris Leinberger recently wrote, “housing density in the walkable urban areas doubled between 1985 and 2010 … while the absolute traffic counts on Wilson Boulevard have gone down.”

While there are differences between heavy rail like Metro and streetcars like the proposed Columbia Pike line, even a few of the benefits Arlington has seen through its planning around Metro would mean major improvements for the Columbia Pike corridor.

Looking forward, Leach said, “Arlington continues to develop. So we need to continue to invest in transportation options. We have the experience of those last 40 years. We fund extensive research … to show that these investments really pay off. So we’re looking to the next generation of investments: high-quality, high-capacity surface transit as an excellent way to continue the county’s progress in terms of travel options and creating high-quality environments.”

If you have an opinion about the streetcar line, share your views now. The county is soliciting public comments online and at public meetings on June 6 and 7.