Arlington County

For much less money, the county can still get much-improved mobility.

Last week, Arlington County, Virginia, abruptly canceled a proposed five-mile streetcar line on Columbia Pike that was years in the making. Project supporters didn't react well to the news. After announcing the cancellation at a press conference, Jay Fisette, chair of the five-person county board and a strong streetcar advocate, refused to shake hands with fellow board member Libby Garvey, who's been an outspoken opponent.

Bruised egos aside, the streetcar cancellation doesn't have to harm Arlington mobility. The opposition wasn't against public transportation at large, but rather the unfortunate tendency of recent high-cost U.S. streetcar systems to operate alongside cars in mixed traffic—a practice many transit experts discourage. To that end, Garvey tells CityLab she's very eager to improve local transit and hopes the county wastes no time advancing plans for a low-cost, bus-rapid transit-style alternative.

"Let's design a system, plan it, and get it up and running as fast as we can," says Garvey. "It's important we move on and take our community forward. There's no reason to think we can't have a bus system that runs like and looks like a modern streetcar. Yes, we can, and we need to do it now."

A big reason for Garvey's optimism is that Arlington already evaluated a potential enhanced-bus line for Columbia Pike, back in 2012, as a possible alternative to the streetcar. (The report refers to the bus concept as TSM-2, for those who plan to wade through it themselves.) Looking back at that analysis today, the figures present a compelling case that BRT-style service could be nearly as effective as a streetcar in terms of mobility, at a fraction of the cost.

A 2012 analysis of transit alternatives for Columbia Pike showed a streetcar and enhanced-bus option sharing the same route. (Arlington County)

On system design, the two concepts are virtually identical. Both the streetcar and the enhanced bus would run five miles along Columbia Pike from Pentagon City in Arlington to Baileys Crossroads in neighboring Fairfax County. The proposed stop locations are the same, as are the station styles—featuring elevated platforms, off-board fare collection, all-door boarding, and real-time transit data. Both services would run every two or three minutes during peak hours.

The estimated capacities and travel times varied slightly in the analysis, but not considerably. The streetcar would have carried more passengers than the bus (115 over 94) but offered fewer seats (44 rather than 60). Daily ridership was expected to reach 26,200 on the streetcar by 2016 and 30,500 by 2030, versus 25,100 by 2016 and 28,900 by 2030 on the bus—a 4 and 5 percent gap, respectively. Meanwhile, the streetcar would have beaten the bus end-to-end by just a minute in 2016, and two minutes in 2030.

A service comparison shows little expected difference between a streetcar option (far right) and an enhanced bus option (third column) along Columbia Pike. (Arlington County)

For those comparable transit services, Arlington would have paid drastically different prices. The 2012 analysis put the cost of building the streetcar system at nearly five times that of the BRT-style system: $242 million (in the low-end scenario) to $53 million. (Both costs have since been cited as higher, with the streetcar reportedly reaching $550 million.) The annual cost of operating the systems would have been the same at best ($22.5 million in 2016), and $7 million more a year for the streetcar at worst.

Streetcar supporters accepted those costs because they're supposed to produce big economic benefits; a return-on-investment analysis done by HR&A earlier this year showed the streetcar would generate up to $3 billion more than an enhanced bus option. But academic studies about the role of streetcars in economic development have been inconclusive, and as Washington, D.C.'s own streetcar program has shown, many of the local benefits occur through street upgrades alone. And the ratio of benefits to costs favors a better bus even by HR&A's own figures, as Garvey has pointed out to the county board.

A rendering of proposed corridor improvements on Columbia Pike. (Arlington County)

The upsides to an enhanced bus could be even greater—on both service and economics alike—if Arlington were able to operate the system as true BRT, in a dedicated transit lane. But the county's maintenance agreement on Columbia Pike precludes such an arrangement, requiring four mixed traffic lanes (via Blue Virginia). Arlington could always request a change to that contract, but the negative impact on car congestion may be too great, and since the streetcar would also have shared a lane with cars, this particular design element is a wash for the sake of comparison.

So on balance of the benefits, it's hard to see how the enhanced-bus option represents much of a mobility downgrade from a streetcar for Arlington, even as it has huge advantages on the ledger. Local leaders will still have to find the money to implement a bus plan (all eyes will be on the $65 million the state recently pledged to the streetcar), and they'll also have to rally support for a new idea after having their hearts set on the old one. But the choice of modes is now clear, leaving only a choice of moods: mourn or move on.

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