Home Transportation Thoughts on the Arlington Streetcar vs. BRT Debate

Thoughts on the Arlington Streetcar vs. BRT Debate


For over a decade now, Arlington has been discussing the possibility of building a streetcar line in the county. Back in July 2012, the County Board voted 4-0, with one abstention, “to approve the streetcar as the preferred transit option for Columbia Pike.” On December 11, 2012, the board approved, by a 4-1 vote, a PPTA (Virginia Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995) “allowing the county to enter into public-private partnerships for transportation projects like the planned Crystal City streetcar.” And in early January 2013, there was a report that a referendum might be required on the streetcar project, “if the government opts to sell ‘revenue bonds’ to fund part of the streetcar plan.” Meanwhile, “Arlington and Fairfax County officials currently are waiting on word from the federal government to see if they will receive up to $75 million in federal funds to support the streetcar project.”

Anyway, that’s mostly where we’re at right now: possibly in the home stretch of what has been a lengthy process, with the possibility of a streetcar system being built in Arlington…or not. It is in this context that I received notice the other day that a new group, Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, had formed, with the goal of “offer[ing] as a viable alternative a modern regional bus rapid transit (BRT) system; request[ing] the County Board to undertake a cost-benefit analysis comparing BRT to a streetcar.” Given the group’s list of supporters, several of whom I know and respect, I was curious to learn more.

So, over the past few days, I’ve been speaking with supporters of the streetcar project, as well as proponents of BRT. My perspective on this issue comes overwhelmingly from my perspective a strong supporter of smart growth, high-density development, and public transit. In addition, of course, I’m a progressive, which means I believe in transparency and integrity in government, as well as the opportunity for citizens to have a voice in decisions affecting their lives. With regard to public transit, I’m open to all possibilities – light rail, heavy rail, buses of various types, pedestrian and cycling paths/trails/sidewalks/etc., you name it. I don’t believe there’s one solution that works everywhere, nor should there be a one-size-fits-all approach. For instance, I’m a big supporter of Metrorail, but I wasn’t fully convinced that extending Metro to Dulles Airport was the optimal use of scarce resources, and wondered whether other options – possibly including bus rapid transit – might not have been more cost effective.

Getting back to the issue at hand, let me lay out the main arguments I’m hearing from the two “sides” (in quotes because I don’t see either “side” as monolithic or absolutist) in this.

Pro-Streetcar/Anti-BRT Arguments

*The streetcar is by far the best option to move people in the Columbia Pike corridor. Right now, we’re pretty much at maximum capacity with regard to buses, can’t really add anymore. Also, given projected increases in the number of people needing public transit along the corridor – 30,000/day or more within the next 20 years – buses, even articulated buses, will simply be inadequate to meet that demand.

*The Pike Transit Initiative website makes the case that a streetcar system “[p]rovides an affordable and high-quality transit option;” “[i]ncreases transit ridership;” “[p]rovides the greatest transit capacity and the greatest capacity for future expansion;” “[s]ustains the economic vitality of the corridor and promotes community development;” “[i]mproves walkability and livability;” “[i]mproves access to regional transit, employment, and business centers;” “[d]ecreases vehicle miles traveled and emissions;” “[s]upports additional  housing as indicated in Arlington County’s Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Area Plan;” etc.

*Constraints in the corridor mean that any option – BRT or streetcar – will NOT have a dedicated Right of Way, but instead will run in regular lanes, along with regular traffic. This means that the “Rapid” part of BRT will not be the case, but that it will simply be “bus transit,” which we already have right now.

*When the streetcar is built, there will still be buses, making this an effective, robust, multi-layered system.

*Spending money on BRT would not make sense, given that it wouldn’t be rapid – because there’s no realistic way to get a dedicated “right of way” in that corridor – and also given the limits on bus capacity already seen in the corridor. Right now, buses are practically “bumping into each other” as it is. You have to deal with the needs of the corridor as it actually exists.

*Arlington has made plans to keep affordable housing in the corridor, in fact has gone above and beyond what almost any other jurisdiction has done in this regard, thus significantly reducing concerns about “gentrification.”

*Meanwhile, the streetcar would increase property values along the corridor, as well as result in a building boom, resulting in economic activity and tax revenues that would far MORE than pay for the streetcar.

*People who actually live in the corridor are supportive of the streetcar, with many annoyed at the opposition coming largely from people who live in other parts of Arlington.

*Funding would predominantly be through an extra-commercial add-on tax, which means that individuals won’t see their taxes go up. Also, businesses are not concerned about this add-on tax, and are very supportive of the streetcar.

*4 out of 5 County Board members think this is a good long-term vision for Arlington, will provide a strong return on investment, will improve the quality of life along the corridor, and will open up possibilities for further expansion of a streetcar network in the county and in the region, more broadly.

*There has been a recent streetcar success story in Virginia – The Tide light rail system in Norfolk, Virginia’s first such system, which opened for service on August 19, 2011, and which saw daily ridership exceeding projections to such an extent that it “reach[ed] its goal of 1 million rides 150 days earlier than had been projected.” Then, in November 2012, a referendum overwhelmingly approved a ballot question asking, “Should the Virginia Beach City Council adopt an ordinance approving the use of all reasonable efforts to support the financing and development of The Tide light rail into Virginia Beach?”

*There were people against the Orange Line coming into Arlington as well, back in the day. There are always people who oppose change and progress.

*If the ONLY thing you look at is the initial expenditure, perhaps you’ll opt to go with the cheaper project, but that’s often penny wise/pound foolish.

*A streetcar would be far more comfortable and appealing to potential riders than a bus.

*There would be only one power line running down the street, it would not be unsightly, and it provides much better power – faster/smoother acceleration, etc. – than a bus powered by natural gas or diesel.

Pro-BRT/Anti-Streetcar Arguments

*See Peter Rousselot’s report, “A Modern Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) System is Far Superior to Streetcars in the Columbia Pike Corridor,” which lays out many of the pro-BRT arguments.

*One core argument made by the aforementioned study is that “Arlington could save between $100 million to $200 million by choosing the BRT option, and that no persuasive explanation has been offered to support paying this enormous premium for the streetcar option.”

*Peter Rousselot’s report also argues, “A modern BRT system could much more quickly be expanded to serve many more origins and destinations than those served by the currently-proposed, 5-mile streetcar system. Such an expanded BRT system would not require as many time-consuming transfers between transit modes. It would boost ridership and create a more economically efficient system.” Also, “a modern BRT system is the hands down winner in the thorough cost-benefit comparison that the Arlington County Board has not yet performed, but must perform before it makes a final decision on which of these two options actually should be funded.”

*”Even though the Columbia Pike streetcar proposal has been considered in one form or another for many years, the County Board has never had before it a proper cost-benefit comparison between the current streetcar proposal and a modern BRT system. Because such a proper cost-benefit comparison has never been performed, our many Arlington citizens groups and individual citizen activists have never had the opportunity to weigh in regarding such a comparison. The “Arlington Way” has not been followed with respect to the streetcar issue. The appropriate critical studies have not been done. Neither Arlington citizens nor Arlington businesses-which must pay for the streetcar-have been informed of the options available for the transit system they will fund.”

*BRT “can provide the same service frequency and span (time of day, days of week) service as the streetcar;” “would be more tailored to the market; e.g., it would provide a new express route which would be significantly faster than today’s bus service because it would have fewer stops, signal priority, and no-step, no gap boarding/alighting;” “would utilize high capacity, natural gas or hybrid diesel electric vehicles with low noise and emissions of all kinds; unlike the streetcar, no unsightly overhead wires would be required;” “would provide faster and more reliable speeds than streetcars because of the ability to go around stopped and/or turning cars and trucks;” “could much more quickly be expanded to serve many more origins and destinations than those served by the currently-proposed, 5-mile streetcar system.”

*At a time of budget constraints, as well as the need to fund a projected increase in student enrollment, Arlington needs to look at a less expensive option than the streetcar, especially one like the BRT which is superior for the reasons listed above.

*There should be a truly impartial study performed, perhaps by a university in the region, doing a side-by-side comparison of BRT vs. a streetcar in Arlington. Once that’s done, Arlingtonians can make a much more informed choice about which choice – BRT or a streetcar – would make the most sense.

My bottom line on all this? I am leaning heavily in favor of a streetcar, for all the reasons listed. I don’t see how Bus Rapid Transit is an appropriate option in lieu of a dedicated Right of Way that actually allows it to be rapid. I also believe that the economic benefits of building a streetcar system in Arlington would be far superior to a Bus (non)-Rapid Transit system. Having said all that, I’d be fully supportive and encouraging of having a truly independent study by transportation experts, perhaps at a local area university, analyzing the two options side by side. I don’t believe that either “side” should be involved in preparing such a study, or in influencing its outcomes. However, I DO believe that such a study should look broadly at the question, including economic benefits, costs, applicability to the corridor(s) in question, etc. Finally, I believe that if such a study is to be done, it needs to be soon, as this debate shouldn’t drag on for years. Having worked for 17 years at an independent, non-partisan, federal statistical and analytical agency (EIA), I can definitely attest to the benefits of having this type of analysis available to policymakers. If that’s possible in this case, I’m all for it. If not, though, it seems to me that for a wide variety of reasons, we should move ahead with the streetcar option as soon as funding is procured.  

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