Columbia Pike Streetcar Post-Mortem
The Arlington Sun Gazette editorial page today gives a "thumbs up" to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Why?
" . . . for being honest about the real purpose of the planned Columbia Pike streetcar system.
"In reiterating its support for the five-mile, quarter-billion-dollar transit line two weeks ago, the supervisors who voted in favor (it was a 7-2 vote, with one abstention) made it clear that economic-development issues were the biggest factor in their decision.
"Building the line, they say, will help in the redevelopment of the Baileys Crossroads corridor."
But then the editorial questions the motives of the Arlington County Board, saying:
"Contrast this with the Arlington County Board, clinging to its mantra – despite the evidence – that the whole project is mostly about transportation. Anybody believe that?
"There continue to be persuasive arguments, both pro and con, about the streetcar system. But in having the discussion, we would prefer that proponents be as honest as the Fairfax supervisors were: This is mostly an economic-development project.
"There’s no sin in that, yet Arlington officials seem leery of acknowledging it."
What is the likelihood, however, that the dreams of the Board masterminds will bear fruit for county taxpayers? An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal by Caroline Porter notes:
"Other cities have had less operational success with their projects. Last year, officials in Tampa, Fla., scaled back the hours of operation and the frequency of rides in order to balance the annual $1.3 million operating budget for a 2.7-mile streetcar, according to Marcia Mejia, public information officer for the area's regional transportation agency. Ridership numbers for a streetcar in Little Rock, Ark., were 112,000 per year, rather than the estimated 130,000. City officials say construction work hampered its usage."
Mr. Randal O'Toole, who is quoted in the Wall Street Journal article, summarizes the executive summary of the study (Policy Analysis No. 699, June 14, 2012), also cited in the Journal article, this way:
"Streetcars cost roughly twice as much to operate, per vehicle mile, as buses. They also cost far more to build and maintain. Streetcars are no more energy efficient than buses and, at least in regions that get most electricity from burning fossil fuels, the electricity powering streetcars produces as much or more greenhouse gases and other air emissions as buses.
"Based on 19th-century technology, the streetcar has no place in American cities today except when it functions as part of a completely self-supporting tourist line. Instead of subsidizing streetcars, cities should concentrate on basic — and modern — services such as fixing streets, coordinating traffic signals, and improving roadway safety."
Arlington taxpayers, unfortunately, will have to wait to learn whether the County Board masterminds have launched their latest vanity project, not to mention the final costs, which almost always seem to increase astronomically.