Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

One of the Columbia Pike streetcar’s biggest supporters has been Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. Now that he’s stepping down, who takes his place could have a big impact on the project’s future.

Of the four candidates running to replace Zimmer­man in a special election this spring, one is opposed to the streetcar between Bailey’s Crossroads and Pentagon City, while three others haven’t shown strong support or opposition to it. But they are raising concerns about the streetcar’s cost and the county’s ability to manage projects like the million-dollar “Super Stop” and Long Bridge Aquatic Park, whose cost estimates are rising.

Meanwhile, streetcar supporters are gearing up to defend the embattled project. A study the county commissioned on the streetcar’s economic benefits is due soon, and officials have yet to decide if it will once again seek federal funding to build it.

Streetcar looms over upcoming special election

One candidate for Zimmerman’s seat, independent John Vihstadt, has already come out firmly against the streetcar project, citing it as one reason to break up Democratic Party control of the board. Vihstadt is a member of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, an anti-streetcar group, and has the support of Libby Garvey, the sole streetcar opponent on the county board.

None of the three candidates seeking the Democratic Party nomination at its caucus in January have indicated their position on the streetcar. Alan Howze comes the closest, listing endorsements from many streetcar supporters on his website, including board member Jay Fisette and retired State Senator Mary Margaret Whipple who penned a pro-streetcar op-ed back in April.

Meanwhile, candidate Peter Fallon notes on his website that the county must support both transit and driving. And the third Democrat, Cord Thomas, recently told ARLnow that he wants more analysis before deciding on whether he supports the streetcar or not.

The Democrats’ reluctance to support the streetcar suggests that while Arlington is generally known for aggressive investments in transportation, the party base may be reconsidering its priorities. But a streetcar on Columbia Pike has been in discussion for years, and it’s hard to believe that a politically active person in Arlington doesn’t have specific opinions about it. And candidates only have a few weeks to make their views known before the caucus.

Tejada responds to critics

Sitting board members are continuing Zimmerman’s push for the streetcar. Chairman Walter Tejada recently wrote an op-ed defending the streetcar in the Washington Post. He responded to specific criticisms made by Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, particularly about the project’s estimated $310 million cost.

Tejada noted that that figure includes streetscape improvements, new bus stops, and burying utilities, things that would benefit everyone traveling on Columbia Pike, whether or not they are on a streetcar. He also explained why AST’s proposed alternative, Bus Rapid Transit in a dedicated lane, wouldn’t work on Columbia Pike due to a limited road width and the Virginia Department of Transportation’s requirement that there remain four general travel lanes.

But he focuses on the biggest advantage of streetcars over buses: the ability to carry more people over time. “The bottom line is not difficult to grasp: Streetcars have up to 100 percent more capacity than buses and attract more riders,” Tejada writes. “Providing more capacity on fewer vehicles and substituting streetcars for some bus routes will minimize the impact of expanded public transit on the street network, allowing other modes of travel, including cars, to continue to move freely.”

County waiting on new study

In September, Arlington commissioned a new study on the streetcar’s capacity and its return on investment, with the results due any day now. It will likely influence whether the county tries to secure funding from the FTA’s New Starts program after it was rejected for funds from FTA’s Small Starts program back in April.

The county is making decisions for other aspects of the Columbia Pike corridor as well. Officials recently approved an affordable housing plan which allows for tax increment financing and the transfer of development rights, which could preserve and increase the amount of affordable housing in the corridor.

Next year, streetcar service will begin in DC. Arlington could soon follow, but only if current and aspiring county officials fully commit to it.