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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Columbia Pike streecar project still on track, despite delays

The view from the Skyline Center
The Columbia Pike Transit Initiative is running a bit behind schedule, but Len Wolfenstein, Fairfax County’s chief transportation planner, still believes it can be operational by 2017.

Federal approval of the environmental analysis is taking longer than anticipated, Wolfenstein told participants at a Bailey’s Business Breakfast at the Skyline Center May 14. The streetcars would run along Columbia Pike between Skyline Center and Pentagon City.

Public meetings on the three proposed mass transit options for Columbia Pike—streetcars and two bus alternatives—that were to take place in May will be pushed back to June 6 (at Patrick Henry Elementary School) and June 7 (the Goodwin House in Bailey’s Crossroads). More details will follow.

Once the plan has been reviewed by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), there will be a 30-day comment period. Then it must be approved by the Arlington County Board and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Because the lion’s share of the project will be in Arlington, that jurisdiction is taking the lead on the project.

Wolfenstein hopes to be able to present the project to the Fairfax County board in time for a decision by July 31 before the board goes on its August recess.

Despite recent comments from Rep. Jim Moran expressing doubts that the project will be funded, Wolfenstein predicts it will go forward, although he acknowledges “the federal funding situation is challenging.”

He says the project has a better chance of being funded if it qualifies for FTA’s Small Starts program, which is limited to transit projects with a total cost of less than $250 million. The project would request a $70 million Small Starts grant, with the rest of the funding provided by VDOT and the two localities.

Preliminary estimates call for Fairfax County to contribute 20 percent of the local funding and Arlington County 80 percent, but that hasn’t been finalized. Wolfenstein predicts those negotiations will be “a very contentious process.”

The proposal offers three alternatives: an enhanced bus system and a more robust, articulated bus system, as well as a rail transit system run on electricity.  The articulated buses would have a lot of the same features as streetcars, such as multi-door boarding and off-site fare collection, but would cost much less—so there will likely be some pressure to go with that option.

Advocates of streetcars, however, believe that a rail system would have a greater impact on economic development and revitalization along the route, which would pay off in the long run.

Another key issue to be determined is where the project should terminate at the Skyline Center. Bringing it all the way to Skyline Plaza, the option preferred by Fairfax County planners, would be the most costly, due to the need for structural reinforcements. The other options are in front of the Target on Leesburg Pike or on the other side of Leesburg Pike at S. Jefferson Street. 

The Skyline Center was originally built with the anticipation that it would be served by Metro.

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