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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Decision on Columbia Pike streetcars expected by the end of July

Streetcars scheduled to start running in DC next summer
The fate of the proposed Columbia Pike Transit Initiative could be decided within the next couple of weeks.

The Arlington County Board will vote on Monday, July 23, whether to adopt the streetcar as “the locally preferred alternative” and authorize the county manager to file a joint application with Fairfax County to request funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the streetcar proposal July 31.

The proposal calls for the streetcar line to extend for five miles along Columbia Pike between Pentagon City in Arlington to S. Jefferson Street in Bailey’s Crossroads and ending at Route 7 across from Target at the Skyline Center. If approved, the streetcars could be operational as early 2017.

The Arlington County Board appears divided on whether to support streetcars, which would run on electricity, or the other options under consideration—an enhanced bus system or a system of longer, articulated buses. Applicants for DOT’s New Starts/Small Starts grant program are required to evaluate multiple alternatives.

Streetcars would cost more than enhanced or articulated bus systems, but proponents say they would pay off in the long run by encouraging more economic development. Those who oppose streetcars say they wouldn’t reduce traffic congestion because there won’t be a dedicated lane for them.

A study published this month evaluating the return on investment of the Columbia Pike Transit Initiative concluded that investing in streetcars “would add significant value to the Columbia Pike corridor.” However, the study raised two concerns: Limits on higher density would need to be increased, and higher property values could lead to the loss of existing affordable housing in the corridor.

Mason Supervisor Penny Gross, vice chair of the board, supports the streetcar initiative, but it’s unclear how the other Fairfax County supervisors will vote. Once the Columbia Pike system is in place, Gross would like to see it extended along Leesburg Pike. It would also be great if streetcars could run all way up Columbia Pike to Annandale.

If you’ve got ideas on how transit should be developed around here, now is the time to let Fairfax County officials know. The county has begun a Countywide Transit Network Study of 2050 and is seeking input from the community on where Metrorail or other light rail systems should be developed over the next few decades.  

The county is holding a public meeting on the study Thursday, July 19, at Hayfield Secondary School, 7630 Telegraph Road, Alexandria, at 6:30 p.m. You can also submit comments and take a survey online.

If we want Annandale to develop the right way, transit is crucial. All the current investments seem to be going to commercial centers close to transit facilities, like Tysons Corner and Merrifield. Annandale could be left behind if our transportation needs are neglected.


  1. a few notes

    1. The data I have seen show an upfront higher cost for rail. They do not analyze total life cycle costs - articulated buses will require more frequent replacement than streetcars, offsetting some of the higher infrastructure costs for rail

    2. No proposed alternative involves a dedicated lane - IIUC VDOT will not allow taking away an auto lane on Columbia Pike. However thats not relevant. Buses (and by extension, street cars) are an alternative to cars, for some individuals, even without dedicated lanes. That has been the experience of Norfolk, IIUC.

    3. An extension up lees burg pike to Seven Corners would fit other county plans. An extension down Columbia Pike to Annandale would have to face very low utilization along the section in between Baileys and the Annandale commercial district. I expect improved transit to Annandale (either rail or dedicated ROW bus) will come in the form of an E-W line on LRT, connecting to Alexandria's proposed transit ROW on Beauregard.

  2. Light rail may improve options for individuals without cars in that corridor, but for the majority of us it will just create a new bill that saps tax dollars. Almost no light or heavy passenger rail line in this country (aside from perhaps the NE corridor) can support operations and maintenance with just passenger fares. We will all be subsidizing this line for as long as it lasts and in my personal opinion, it will not relieve traffic on Columbia Pike to any great degree to provide any benefit to non-riders. I believe the entire push to invest in expensive rail (especially high-speed rail) that will take much needed dollars from other transportation requirements is misguided. It may sound like crazy science fiction to many, but I believe the only solution is automated cars. It will not be easy to move in this direction, but the technology exists today. Taking driving out of the hands of humans is possible today and will be much safer, less expensive, and more efficient than any other alternative. The money we are throwing away on these projects should be redirected to cooperative govt/industry research and development of the technologies required to implement automated vehicles. Automated vehicles would save hundreds of thousands of lives (eliminating DUI, the 80% of accidents due to human error, and greatly reduce the danger of mechanical failure accidents), utilize existing infrastructure much more efficiently, allow much faster and consistent travel and commerce, and save billions of dollars (auto repair, insurance, ownership, liability, property damage, etc.). I dream of day when I can tell my grand children harrowing stories about driving down two lane roads at 60 mph passing tractor trailers in the opposite direction only six feet away.

  3. Fairfax County needs new transit initiatives. We are falling behind as Country and a County that once led the rest of world. Now we can barely follow and keep up. Parts of Fairfax are becoming more urban and thus its needs are changing to keep it competitive. Let's do the smart thing and not repeat the mistakes we made by not bringing the metro to Skyline thirty years ago.

  4. High Speed Rail is an intercity mode, and has nothing to do with what is under discussion here.

    yes, Columbia Pike Rail will require an operating subsidy. So do the current buses on the Pike, so will the proposed articulated bus alternative. Are you suggesting dropping all bus service on Columbia Pike tomorrow? If not your post is a red herring.

    BTW, if automated operation works, lets implement that on metro where it could reduce costs and allow for increased frequency - rail is a much easier place to introduce automation than the roads.

  5. All aboard Illegal Alien Express!!! Choo Choo!

    1. In all likelihood, the rising property values along a light rail line will raise rents and change the passenger profile from what you anticipate (in such disturbingly crass terms).

  6. Great article Annandale Blog!

  7. This will yuppify the area along the line, raise property values, and stimulate private investment. Studies should be realistic as to usage, lest we subsidize this thing too much - but it is progress I think that will lead to redevelopment of Annandale.

  8. Anyone who has visited the great cities of the world will know that this is a smart move. It will attract more young urban professionals, their families and generate businesses to serve and employ these communities. While all the new high tech business start ups move to San Fran, NY and yes Arlington and DC, the brain drain continues in FFX, i.e Exxon Mobile. FFX needs to capture a more progressive urban paradigm to be able to sustain its older neighborhoods and generate new economic activity. FFX BOS, all u need to do is look next door!