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David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington on Why “streetcars are Arlington’s best bet”

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There’s been so much misinformation (and, frankly, DISinformation) spewed around about the Arlington streetcar project, that it’s great to see people who know a TON about transit options respond. For instance, David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington, who has a new op-ed in the Washington Post entitled, Rail, streetcars or BRT? The definitions matter.  A few key points.

1. As I’ve pointed out, and as others – Arlington County Board experts, for instance – have explained time and again, “modern bus transit” (whatever that is exactly) or “Bus Rapid Transit” (which requires a dedicated right-of-way) are simply not possible on Columbia Pike. As Alpert explains, “It would be fantastic to dedicate lanes on Columbia Pike, but the Virginia Department of Transportation isn’t willing to consider reallocating space from cars to transit, even if more people would be moved in the higher-capacity trains or buses.” End of story. Next subject!

2. BRT supporters can deny or hand-wave this point away as much as they want, but it doesn’t make it (aka, “reality”) disappear. As Alpert humorously puts it, “Personally, I favor ‘Star Trek’-style transporters on Columbia Pike, which would be far faster than any car, bus or train, but those are just as nonexistent.” LOL – exactly! Nor are there dedicated lanes for any BRT or “modern bus transit” (whatever that is; it remains undefined by people who throw that phrase around as if it actually means something).

3. Among the MANY advantages of streetcars, Alpert explains, is that they “can transport more people than buses can and usually stimulate more economic development than an equivalent bus project.” Let’s see, it transports more people and brings more economic value to the community than adding more buses. Hmmm…gee, this is a really tough call! (not)

4. Of course, nobody’s arguing that streetcars are the right fit for every situation. You have to analyze the specifics of each particular case, which is exactly what Arlington’s done for over a decade now. And, not surprisingly, Arlington’s come to the same conclusion over and over again, that – as Alpert puts it, “streetcars are Arlington’s best bet” – the “right mode” for Columbia Pike.

The bottom line here is that the Columbia Pike streetcar’s almost certainly going to happen, barring a truly bizarre turn of events (e.g., the Tea Party takes over the Arlington County board?). For starters, it’s conceivable that somebody could primary leading streetcar advocate and County Board member Chris Zimmerman next year (in fact, I’ve heard VERY strong rumors that this is EXACTLY what’s in the works) and try to replace him with someone who opposes the streetcar. That would be a huge mistake, to put it mildly, and we should all strongly oppose any candidate who runs on such a platform.  

  • JimWebster

    Lowell, I second, third and fourth your motion(s). This is a debate that should be over.

  • TransitRider

    This blog post is precisely why there is, and will continue to be, a vigorous discussion of Arlington’s streetcar proposal.  First, rapid buses or BRT do not require a dedicated lane. FTA does not require a dedicated lane, and there are many successful systems operating without dedicated lanes.   More importantly, the streetcar does not have a dedicated lane either, so criticizing an alternative to the streetcar for a lack of a dedicated lane is hypocritical nonsense.

    Second, streetcars do not carry more passengers than buses.  That is an absolute fact, established by transit agency data.  Arlington has set a target for 30,000 weekday boardings in the year 2030. There are many US bus lines that currently exceed this target, some carrying 40,000 to 50,000 weekday passengers.  The best US streetcars do not even come close. Portland only carries 11,200, and it has been losing riders despite opening the eastside extension. Moreover, Arlington County’s own study of the Pike, published in 2005, concluded that BRT would carry more passengers than streetcars on the Pike.  

    Third, streetcars do not magically cause economic development.  This myth has been thoroughly debunked in the academic literature and by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies.  Even the Portland Development Commission, when asked about the streetcar’s contribution to economic development, stated that the streetcar was not a factor in the success of downtown Portland.  Indeed, the studies on this issue conclude that development would have occurred “irrespective of the streetcar.”  Why?  Because many other factors, such as zoning, financial incentives to developers, etc.  drove development demand, not the sreetcar.

    Lowell, you do yourself and your readers a real disservice by repeating factually inaccurate assertions that can be easily dismissed with just a moderate amount of research.    

  • VaCat

    The streetcar on Columbia Pike will not have a dedicated lane so it will be vulnerable to the vicissitudes of traffic – thus not a more efficient means of transportation.  Columbia Pike is a thoroughfare with extremely heavy traffic during the rush hours.  What people want is a fast way to get to DC and out of DC.  Do you believe that folks are going to wait for the streetcar chugging along to Pentagon City instead of taking the express buses that go to the Pentagon or to DC?

    At rush hour much of the traffic on the Pike is coming from or going to Fairfax.  What is going to entice people to get out of their cars onto a streetcar that only goes for five miles in Arlington?

    If the Arlington County Board wants to spend a lot of money on transportation, they’d be better off fighting for funding for Metro rail which would be a real improvement in transportation along that route.  In the meantime they ought to be practical and mindful of public money by improving the bus system along the Pike, then plan accordingly for a proper subway.  The streetcar is quaint and a complete waste of resources.  Let’s go Metro – instead of retro!