We’re talking with Chris Zimmerman today from 12-1. Zimmerman is stepping down after 17 years on the Arlington County Board to work for Smart Growth America.
Update: The chat has ended. Here is the transcript, edited only for formatting, to correct typos and punctuation, and to insert paragraph breaks.
Michael Perkins: Hi and welcome to our Greater Greater Washington live chat. We have with us today as our guest Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County Board member for the past 18 years. Mr. Zimmerman will be retiring from the board within the next couple weeks to work for Smart Growth America. Thanks for joining us today, Chris.
Chris Zimmerman: Glad to be here (virtually speaking).
Michael Perkins: just a note to anyone joining us today, you can submit a question for the chat by typing /msg perkinsms and then your question. I’ll pick some to include. Chris, let’s start out with Arlington and your experience on the board. How has Arlington changed in nearly two decades?
Chris Zimmerman: Well obviously the vision for Arlington as a TOD-based community has blossomed into reality; in the 90s it was still more of a plan, something hoped for. Beyond the growth of the R-B corridor, we’ve also extended the vision of a walkable, transit-oriented community to non-Metrorail places.
Michael Perkins: In the 90s Arlington was one of the first communities to try some smart growth principles. What was the reaction at the time?
Chris Zimmerman: That has resulted in transit service being extended county-wide (ART), sidewalk improvements, bike facilities throughout the County, etc. In the 90s we didn’t have the smart growth vocabulary, so it was a little less cohesive as a shared vision. Most people supported the idea of transit, but there was less consensus on what we wanted to be as a community.
Many people were concerned about traffic in neighborhoods, for instance. That can become an anti-development movement (as happens in many places), or it can be the basis of a movement for greater walkability — pedestrian safety, safe routes to schools, good urban design, etc. We took the latter path.
Michael Perkins: Right now there’s a big debate going on in Arlington about the plan to add streetcars to Columbia Pike/Pentagon City/Crystal City. At least two of the declared board candidates are opposed to streetcar. How will the streetcar plan fare after you leave the board as one of its strongest advocates?
Chris Zimmerman: There has been strong for the streetcar plan consistently since the first approval in 2006. A solid majority in both the Arlington and Fairfax Boards is committed to realizing it. They recognize that completion of the streetcar system is a vital part of our economic and fiscal future.
Michael Perkins: Some of the candidates would prefer an option like enhanced buses, which some people call BRT. How did the county evaluate streetcar against BRT and choose its preferred option?
Chris Zimmerman: The debate over streetcar in Arlington parallels that over every rail project anywhere in America, especially in recent years. Opponents use “BRT” as a tactic, usually not because they want BRT, but because they are interested in stopping a transit project.
Michael Perkins: Part of the problem with BRT is that the concept is not concrete enough to know what you’re getting. In some ways the Pike Ride bus system is very close to the best BRT we could have on the pike.
Chris Zimmerman: BRT is an important component in an overall strategy for regional mobility. It is not a substitute for streetcar in an application to the kind of corridor we are working with. Most significant to the decision with Columbia Pike, however, was simply that we realized we did not have a BRT option. We could add more buses, but that isn’t BRT.
As you say, folks aren’t necessarily sure what BRT means. That makes it easy to make up false comparisons in which there is a “far cheaper alternative”, which isn’t really an alternative at all, and wouldn’t bring the benefits we’re seeking.
Michael Perkins: A question from Canaan: “A lot of people criticize the Columbia Pike streetcar because it won’t have dedicated lanes. But Mr. Tejada pointed out that is because VDOT won’t allow a lane to be taken away from cars. What made you decide the project was worth it anyway, and if VDOT changed their mind would that mean the board would likely support a new design even if it meant some sort of delay?”
And a side note, is the decision to have a dedicated lane something VDOT could revisit with the county at a later time?
Chris Zimmerman: A dedicated lane for transit is always to be desired. However, when the analysis was done it was found that there would be relatively little travel-time benefit. This is because the east-west flow on Columbia Pike is actually quite good. And of course, the distances are not great. So, a dedicated lane was found not to be essential to achieving high quality transit service.
On the other hand, the quality of the service (particularly in terms of rider experience) can be greatly enhanced with street-running rail. And, yes, at some point in the future the state can decide it wants to convert car lanes to transit lanes.
Michael Perkins: A question emailed in from Rick Rybeck: “What do you think about the use of ‘value capture’ to fund transit and about its ability to promote more compact and affordable development?” I know this is something the County has done under your leadership in the Crystal City area.
Chris Zimmerman: I think value capture will likely be key to significant transit improvements and TOD in the US in coming years. This is of course a large component of our plan for streetcar in Arlington. The Crystal City plan adopted in 2010 included creation of a TIF for the purpose of funding transportation improvements, most especially the streetcar. We have had that in place for several years now, and it can fund most of the cost of the Crystal City-Pentagon City-Potomac Yards portion of the line.
Michael Perkins: A question from David Alpert: “There seems to be a very loud contingent of people stridently opposed to the transit and smart growth vision that Arlington has held to for so long. Is that new, or just more visible because of social media like Twitter? Is it because now it’s moving into new areas like Columbia Pike, versus building out R-B and CC-PY?”
Chris Zimmerman: I think that today there is a loud contingent of strident people opposed to all kinds of things, everywhere. The Internet is wonderful in many ways. One of the ways is the ability to create virtual communities, to connect people who would never have been in contact with each other. It is also a megaphone, that amplifies voices of a few (often a good thing).
These qualities have a profound impact on public discourse, however, and I don’t think we have entirely worked out (as a society) how to process all of it. Among its impacts is the “nationalizing” of all discussion, so that trends that are running in a larger political conversation (state, national) are quickly transformed into local memes. This makes for a very robust discussion at the local level, which can be a very good thing, but it can also be distorting, giving a funhouse mirror look to policy dialogue.
Michael Perkins: Some cities around the country are just starting to look at Smart Growth/Transit oriented development. What advice do you have for these cities? What are the low-hanging fruits that are good “first steps” to take?
Chris Zimmerman: First thing is to assess what assets you already have in place. A grid of streets? A good Main Street? Legacy buildings? Etc. Your greatest returns will come from using these as anchors. Remember that the key objective in any such development pattern — whether in a major metropolis or a small village — is proximity. The value of small spaces is the key. People tend not to realize just how much can be accomplished with very little real estate.
If you’re starting with nothing, get one or two good blocks done. If you’ve got one or two good blocks, build on to them. After that, you can talk about how much you want to invest in transit and other infrastructure. But the focus has to be on creating great places, places people want to be in, and connecting them to everyone.
Michael Perkins: You’re leaving the board after nearly 20 years. How do you think working for a national organization will change how you can advocate for Smart Growth compared to being an elected official?
Chris Zimmerman: As an elected official I’ve had the opportunity to work very intensively on one community — my own — and have an impact on how it has developed. I’m very excited for the opportunity to help with this work on a wide variety of communities, all across the country.
Some are similar to Arlington, or to where Arlington was 20 or 30 years ago; others are very different, in size, demographics, economy, etc. But all have challenges in common, and for all there are basics that can improve the quality of life, the state of the environment, and their economic and fiscal health.
I’ve believed for a very long time that the issues of how we build our communities, how we create the places in which we live, work, and play — how we use the scarce resource of land — has a profound impact across a great range of issues, environmental, social, and economic. So, I think I’m very fortunate to be able to work with people who are trying to make a difference with these policies all over America.
Michael Perkins: We have about 10 minutes left in the chat. If you’re listening in you can send a question in by typing /msg perkinsms and your question. I may not get to them all.
Michael Perkins: I’m going to shift to Metro. The original Metro system was built using money that was shifted from a large highway system that the region largely didn’t need and didn’t want. The original Metro system is now running into capacity constraints, especially on the orange line.
How are we going to be able to afford upgrades to the core capacity of the system? I see a lot of plans on what capacity upgrades we could make, but I don’t see something out there that signifies the $5-10B we are likely going to need to start.
Chris Zimmerman: That’s really a question of political will. The original system (actually only partly funded by shifting money from highways) represented an enormous fiscal commitment from all levels of government. In real terms, the funding needed now is far smaller relatively to our fiscal capacity. The difference now is almost entirely in attitude. We’ve made it hard to raise money for anything government does. But if we want to have a first-class transportation system, it is entirely within our means to do so.
Michael Perkins: In your organizational statement you mentioned that we seemed to be “gripped by a ‘can’t do’ mentality.” How do we overcome that?
Chris Zimmerman: The “we” I was referring to was the nation; so, unfortunately, this is a problem of politics. For the most part, people here in the National Capital Region have not been consumed by this malaise. Recent “controversies” however, illustrate how this mentality is being imposed on our policy dialogue. Even in places like Arlington.
But we don’t have to succumb to it. We have the means to accomplish what we need to do. And my sense is that people — the majority — are ahead of leaders in being willing to move forward. So, advocacy is really important.
Michael Perkins: And with that I think we are done. Thank you very much for joining us.
Chris Zimmerman: Thank you.
Michael Perkins: Thanks to everyone for submitting questions and for listening in.