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A new return on investment study shows that for the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar, the additional benefits of rail over buses far outweigh the additional costs.

Streetcar opponents in Arlington have been arguing that better buses on Columbia Pike could provide as many benefits as streetcars, for much lower cost. This new study shows that claim simply isn’t true.

Although streetcars on Columbia Pike will cost $200 to $250 million more than enhanced buses, rail will return $3.2 to $4.4 billion in economic benefits, compared to only $1.0 to $1.4 billion for bus.

This means the $2.2 to $3 billion worth of additional benefits from streetcars are approximately 10 times as great as the additional cost.

Arlington commissioned this new study to analyze the economic costs and benefits of streetcars and enhanced buses on Columbia Pike in a side-by-side, apples-to-apples way. The study also takes into consideration new data that’s come out since previous studies, leading to more realistic forecasts.

An independent firm, HR&A Advisors, conducted the study. They took several steps, including literature reviews, case studies, and interviews, to establish the study’s credibility as not advancing a predetermined outcome.

Enhanced bus isn’t BRT

Streetcar opponents had hoped this report would demonstrate stronger benefits for buses, citing analysis from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) that examined the benefits of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects around the country.

The Columbia Pike study found that while many BRT projects do indeed have strong returns on investment, the conditions in those cities cannot be replicated on Columbia Pike.

Labels for transportation projects matter, and “enhanced bus” is not the same as “BRT.” While the enhanced bus option on Columbia Pike would mean longer buses and off-board payment, these improvements wouldn’t be enough to see the gains of true BRT. According to HR&A, citing the benefits of “full BRT” on Columbia Pike makes for “flawed comparisons.”

The bus option costs more than earlier studies assumed

Although the streetcar option is more expensive than the bus option, the difference isn’t as great as previously believed. The return on investment study notes some additional costs for enhanced buses that weren’t a part of previous analysis.

Since the bus option would bring new articulated buses into the corridor, that would require building a new operations and repair facility for the buses somewhere nearby. Previous studies only counted a cost for a maintenance and operations yard for the streetcar, not for bus.

Also, adding more heavy 60-foot buses on Columbia Pike would require repaving the roadbed using more durable concrete, to handle the weight of the new buses. Previous studies assumed the streetcar would require roadbed and track construction, but didn’t for the bus alternative. They had instead projected that buses would use the existing roadbed for no additional cost.

Enhanced buses are a good tool in many corridors, but the claim that they can provide equal benefits to streetcars on Columbia Pike should be put to rest once and for all.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Falls Church.