Photo by EnvironmentBlog on Flickr.

Last Sunday, Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey criticized the Columbia Pike Streetcar in an op-ed in The Washington Post, “Arlington streetcars fail the cost-benefit test.” Contrary to Ms. Garvey’s assertions, Arlington County is on the right track.

Ms. Garvey opined that streetcars won’t improve transit on Columbia Pike and pointed out that buses can stimulate development as well as streetcars. She also stated that the streetcar does not have a proven track record of success. 

Ms. Garvey asserted that the streetcar does not have the capacity needed to adequately serve the Columbia Pike corridor.  Finally, she also informed us that she has studied the latest available information regarding streetcars. Unfortunately, Ms. Garvey may have skipped over some information that might clarify her thinking regarding the streetcar.

The streetcar is not a bus

Actually, there is a great deal of difference between a streetcar and a bus.

The streetcar has greater capacity.  Ten streetcars do not equate to 10 buses. The current mayor of Toronto, Canada, recently campaigned on ridding central Toronto of its iconic streetcar system.  He said they were too slow and got in the way of cars.  Once elected, he found that he needed 550 buses to replace those 300 darn streetcars.  Guess how far his proposal got? 

The streetcar has greater acceleration and deceleration rates than diesel buses. This means that the streetcar can and does travel faster than the bus.  It can do this because the electric motor is more efficient than the diesel engine.  When America was fixated on replacing the streetcar in the 1940s and 50s, it was found that time after time it took about 13-15 buses for every 10 streetcars that they replaced, even though they both operated in mixed traffic. 

Regardless of the capacity issue, a lesser number of streetcars can better meet the schedule simply because they are faster.  The Columbia Pike streetcar will increase connectivity and thereby mobility options by providing better access to shopping, recreation and the Metro at Pentagon City. 

Yes, as Ms. Garvey mentioned, people will have to transfer from the streetcar to other modes, principally Metro, if they want to continue their trips to other destinations.  But the bus has that same issue. 

Streetcars will foster more development

Ms. Garvey claims that there are some that say that only the streetcars can stimulate desired development.  I know of no one who makes that claim.  However, experts widely acknowledge that streetcars have an advantage over buses in sparking quality development. 

While bus lines can easily be re-routed or discontinued, the streetcar represents a permanent investment in the community, something developers really like.  The H Street, NE streetcar in the District clearly demonstrates this fact.  Developer after developer has stated that the streetcar was a major reason why they decided to invest in that corridor. 

The currently under-construction Cincinnati streetcar has already had a measurable effect of stimulating development in the Over-the-Rhine (OTR) community.  The city of Minneapolis is planning a city-wide streetcar system.  Dallas is building its first streetcar line. 

Seattle’s first streetcar line connecting downtown with the South Lake Union District has been such a resounding success that Amazon has offered to buy an additional streetcar to alleviate overcrowding.  Seattle is also building a second streetcar line and is planning a city-wide network to complement its successful LRT system. 

The Sugar House streetcar line will open in Salt Lake City this year.  Officials there are especially pleased with the development spawned by the streetcar.  Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly approved a downtown streetcar and the LA City Council just approved a long term (30 years) source of funding for operating costs. And in Portland, Oregon, an expanding streetcar network has and is stimulating development in the central city. 

Right now across the nation, 10 streetcar lines are under construction (9 are new systems while one is an extension to an existing system).  Maybe they are all misguided or, just maybe, they are confident in the evidence that the streetcar can draw quality development, generate significant ridership and integrate into the urban fabric to a much better degree than the bus.

“Modern” Bus Rapid Transit isn’t an option, nor a desirable one

Ms. Garvey may have let the cat out the bag when she said that they (streetcars) would make traffic worse.  And how would they do that?  By impeding the automobile?  Arlington County is trying to expand mobility options by upgrading transit and making it a more attractive option than having to use the automobile for even trivial trips. 

While I personally would prefer that streetcar get its own right of way, an agreement with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) prohibits that.

Ms. Garvey identifies Cleveland’s BRT Health Line as an example of fostering development with buses.  However, the Health Line has its own dedicated lane, an option that’s not available to Arlington for either bus or rail. This continues the trend from streetcar opponents of comparing the project to an impossible alternative while citing costs for much cheaper buses.

Besides, a number of analysts have concluded that much of the development along the line would have occurred in any event.  The Health Line was built to LRT standards in many places to facilitate easy conversion when ridership justifies an upgrade.  The Cleveland BRT line had a price tag similar to many streetcar projects ($30 million/mile).  The HealthLine was completed in 2008 and carries about 15,000 per weekday.

Ms. Garvey says that Portland, Oregon and Tampa, Florida were strained by decreasing ridership and ballooning annual operating costs.  Tampa’s operation was partially funded by a trust fund that took a grievous hit during the recession.  Tampa is a tourist operation, pure and simple, primarily geared to transporting cruise travelers/tourists between Ybor City and downtown Tampa.  The Tampa streetcar was also recently extended to provide better access to the downtown area. 

The Portland Streetcar has been shown to be a proven catalyst for development along both the original route and the recently opened extension across the Willamette River to East Portland.  While the abolition of the fareless area in downtown Portland last year (through which much of the Portland Streetcar operated) has caused some adjustments, ridership has held up amazingly well.

Buses don’t carry more people

I would take the greatest issue with Ms. Garvey’s erroneous comparison of streetcar capacity with bus routes in other cities.  She writes, “The best US streetcars carry a fraction of the number of riders carried by the highest-capacity US bus routes, even where the buses do not have dedicated lanes.” Comparing the highest-volume US bus routes to streetcars is simplistic and has no relevance to Columbia Pike.

The Toronto example above is a good case in point. The Orange Line Busway in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley is strangling on its own success.  The busway cannot expand capacity without adding another bus (and driver), which means that the busway will reach its full capacity, probably sooner than later.

A rail facility (streetcar or light rail) has the ability to easily tailor service to demand by simply training rail vehicles together, all driven by one operator.  This is the reason why Ottawa, Canada, is building a light rail line to replace its existing busway.  The number of buses trying to access downtown Ottawa is simply staggering.  Simply put, they have a capacity problem and it will be solved by building a rail facility.

As conservatives, we believe that streetcars bring solid economic development, reinforce walkable environments, and encourage and cement cohesive, stable neighborhoods.  Providing a viable, attractive alternative to the automobile also strengthens our national defense posture as it further reduces our reliance on foreign oil.  The Columbia Pike streetcar will further all of these objectives.  I look forward to seeing it become a reality.