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To Democratic Candidates for Virginia’s 8th CD: Arlington Streetcar Is Not a Progressive Project

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Lowell Feld, a self-avowed progressive and publisher of Blue Virginia, has invited each candidate for the Democratic nomination for Virginia’s 8th congressional district seat to provide comments on the Columbia Streetcar project. Lowell, a staunch streetcar advocate, declared earlier this month that Alan Howze and the Arlington County Board “absolutely, positively should NOT back off on the streetcar project.” Lowell appears to believe that the project will generate billions of dollars in development and tax revenue, making support for this project a “no brainer.” Lowell accuses streetcar opponents of “disinformation, distortions, and outright lies,” such as claiming that the streetcar has taken away from “core services.”

Though I don’t know much about Lowell’s progressive believes, I respect his position and that of other streetcar supporters, yet as a public transit advocate and creator of a transit advocacy group, Transiters, I want to offer reasons why support for the streetcar is inconsistent with progressive goals.

Progressive Goals

Before candidates who consider themselves to be progressive decide whether to support a project such as the streetcar they should consider whether the project under consideration would further progressive goals. Progressive goals that public transit projects can support include helping to reduce the disparities in income and wealth. Public transit can help by creating construction and transit jobs. Public transit can help employees by providing them with better access to jobs. Public transit can help employers by providing them with better access to the workforce. Other goals that public transit can contribute to include helping to reduce the risk of climate disaster by lowering greenhouse gas emissions, helping to achieve greater energy and national security by lowering petroleum consumption, helping to develop vibrant livable communities, and contributing to better individual health through more walking and time outdoors.

With these goals in mind, let’s consider the two primary issues of disagreement in the streetcar debate. The first issue involves the financial costs and benefits of the alternatives. The second issue involves the operational performance of the alternatives. With respect to both the financial and the operational issues, a note of caution is warranted: we are evaluating predictions, and predictions are difficult, especially about the future.

Cost and Benefit Predictions Are Highly Speculative and Contradictory

To illustrate how imprecise the financial predictions are we need only to compare the streetcar impact that was predicted in the May, 2012 report, “Columbia Pike Transit Initiative, Alternatives Analysis / Environmental Assessment,” to the streetcar impact that was predicted in the March, 2014 report, “Columbia Pike Transit Initiative: Comparative Return on Investment Study.” The 2012 report estimated that the streetcar would increase the value of existing property and stimulate development of additional property in the Columbia Pike corridor by between $1.1 B and $1.3 B. Just two years later, the 2014 prediction is that the streetcar would confer between $3.2 B and $4.4 B in net incremental benefits.

No fundamentals have changed that would justify this dramatic change in these predictions, so we know that one of these reports is wrong. What we don’t know is which one is wrong, or perhaps, whether both are wrong. Given that these estimates are so wildly divergent, it is tempting to disregard them both. One thing that distinguishes the 2012 report from the 2014 report is the fact that the 2012 report was prepared according to Federal Transit Administration (FTA) guidelines in support of an application for FTA funding, thereby lending greater credibility to the 2012 report than to the 2014 report.

Operational Performance of the Alternatives is Essentially Identical

As the Democratic nominee for the Arlington County Board, Alan Howze’s critique of the streetcar, articulated in a position paper issued earlier this year, is a valuable source for identifying and understanding the arguments made by many streetcar supporters. Alan articulated three operational reasons for his support of a streetcar over enhanced bus service.

Reason Number 1:

“The capacity of bus alternatives max out below what is needed along the Pike. Streetcars have higher carrying capacity and can better meet the transportation needs.”

There is simply no evidence for this claim. The 2012 report predicts 5.5 percent more riders on the streetcar, but the report never claims that this is a capacity constraint. The 2012 report states that the “ridership forecast model is primarily based on travel time savings – as travel time savings increase, so does transit ridership. For both the TSM2 Alternative and the Streetcar Build Alternative, the transit operation assumptions that lead to travel time savings are almost identical – both alternatives assume off-board fare collection and multi-door boarding.” (Columbia Pike Transit Initiative, Locally Preferred Alternative Report, July 16, 2012)

In other words, capacity is not an issue that distinguishes these two alternatives.

Reason Number 2:

“There is not a dedicated lane available on the Pike, so buses will not be any faster along the Pike than they are today.”

The weekday travel time during the AM peak period today between Jefferson Street and Pentagon City is 23 minutes, and according to the 2012 report, the weekday travel time during the AM peak period in 2030 between these points with the streetcar system will be 23 minutes – identical to the speed of buses today. To be fair, the 2012 report predicts that the 2030 travel time by bus will be 25 minutes, only 2 minutes longer than the travel time predicted for the streetcar.

Reason Number 3:

“Streetcars will also get more people out of cars and into transit. I have knocked on over 1,000 doors – including neighborhoods along both sides of Columbia Pike. I have spoken directly with residents who do not ride the bus today, but would ride the streetcar.”

The 2011 Pike Ride Weekday Daily Ridership was 15,053, and WMATA’s 2010 Title VI Equity Evaluation reported that 75 percent of its bus passengers are minorities. If Alan knocked 1,000 doors and only talked to people who don’t ride the bus, he may be knocking on the wrong doors. Minorities and lower income individuals do not vote as often as do non-minority and higher income individuals, so anyone seeking political office faces the challenge of representing the interests of the entire population, yet progressive candidates should never abandon this objective.

Support Transit Projects That Meet Progressive Goals

In both the private and the public sector, there are always more projects seeking investment than there are dollars to invest. Progressive candidates and officials should take care to push projects that satisfy their goals and that achieve as much as possible with the limited resources that are available. Enhanced bus service along Columbia Pike would achieve almost as much as would a streetcar system at a fraction of the cost, leaving the community the opportunity to invest in additional projects while spending fewer dollars. The primary “advantage” of the streetcar seems to be the transfer of wealth to a small group of individuals – something that continues a global trend that is not consistent with our progressive values. A better solution is to support transportation projects that support those progressive values.

I would encourage you to support enhanced buses on Columbia Pike and elsewhere.