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Arlington County Board's Math Still Faulty

Scott McCaffrey of the Arlington Sun Gazette reported on yesterday evening's Columbia Pike streetcar forum, which the Arlington County Board scheduled undoubtedly hoping to bring an end to opposition to the Columbia Pike streetcar. The short take, according to McCaffrey: "opinions are plentiful, but County Board math remains the same." His reporting includes this:

"Diverse voices were raised, but by the end of the night, no County Board minds had been swayed following a March 27 town-hall meeting focusing on the controversial Columbia Pike streetcar project.

“For me to change my decision is a pretty high bar,” County Board Vice Chairman Jay Fisette said after sitting through the two-hour forum, which drew a crowd of 400 to Kenmore Middle School.

"Fisette and board colleagues Chris Zimmerman, Mary Hynes and chairman Walter Tejada left the meeting just as committed to a streetcar plan for Columbia Pike as when they came in, leaving only board member Libby Garvey in opposition.

"The meeting drew a nearly equal mix of streetcar proponents and critics, in what for the most part was a civil discussion on probably the biggest hot-button county issue since the proposed Potomac Yard baseball stadium was fought out a decade ago.

"Supporters of the streetcar, who merely need to run down the clock in coming months as the project moves through procedural steps . . . . satisfaction while sitting through the meeting."

< . . . >

"Garvey didn’t pick up the support of her colleagues, but she said the forum may have given the public more to think about.

“This is absolutely the right discussion to have,” said Garvey, who supports a cheaper bus-rapid-transit alternative for the Columbia Pike corridor. “I hope I’ve planted the seeds of doubt [about the streetcar].”
Yet unless a public bond referendum on the issue is required – at this point, a slim possibility exists it might be – County Board members have the final say. Their timetable calls for the streetcar to be clanging down the corridor in 2016 or 2017.

"The arguments on each side on March 27 essentially were the same as in the past . . . ."

McCaffrey added "(t)he debate has crossed traditional political lines: Republicans, Greens, the Tea Party and some Democrats are voicing opposition to the streetcar plan, with a mixture of business interests, transit and environmental groups, and other Democrats supporting it."

At the online Clarendon-Courthouse-Rosslyn Patch news site. Jason Spencer provides comprehensive coverage as well, and writes:

"Hundreds representing both sides showed up Wednesday night for what turned out to be a fairly heated town hall at Kenmore Middle School.

Four of the five Arlington County Board members explained the processes and decisions that have taken place over the last decade and have gotten the county to this point. To them, the discussion has been going on, scores of people have participated, and the streetcar remains the best long-term strategic investment to run along the Pike.

"To board member Libby Garvey, who opposes the streetcar and seems less concerned about any political consequences of her position as the fight draws on, now's the time to start the discussion about whether a bus rapid transit system is the better alternative. She contends it would be.

"Where we are now is deciding what vehicle to use," she said as the night closed. "I hope I planted some seeds of doubt in the minds of some of you."

< . . . >

"People chanted "Vote! Vote! Vote!" when one resident called for a referendum. A few boos followed when board member Mary Hynes said such a ballot measure would only be possible if bond money was paying for the streetcar project. It's not. Federal funds and Fairfax County dollars feed into the project, and Arlington is using money collected from a business tax that by law must be used to fund transportation.

"Garvey pointed out that money is fungible. Board Vice Chairman Jay Fisette told her it was not, that the law prescribed narrow ways in which certain funds had to be used. Fisette had to make the argument on two fronts, as those not familiar with the county's budgeting process try to make sense of how such an expensive project can move forward when spending cuts could take police officers from the streets and nurses out of schools.

"Elected officials supporting the streetcar looked notably frustrated whenever Garvey spoke, with Tejada several times angrily shaking his head.

In addition to a video that includes Libby Garvey, the only Board member who opposes the Columbia Pike streetcar, and Tim Wise, ACTA president, the Arlington Mercury's Jonathan Kim and Steve Thurston report on the forum, including:

"What they did not do, to the chagrin of the pro-Bus Rapid Transit people who made up the majority in the audience, was allow a pro-BRT presentation of the same length and type as the county's 30 minute presentation.

“We continue to be deeply concerned about the unwillingness of the County Board to fairly consider transit options for Columbia Pike, other than the fixed-rail streetcar. There is much evidence that rational and viable alternatives exist," wrote Peter Rousselot in a statement distributed after the meeting. Rousselot is the spokesperson for Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST), a pro-BRT group.

"The pro-BRT side claims that a high-capacity bus line would have the same positive influence on economic growth--spurring developers to build along Columbia Pike--but would do it at about one-tenth of the $250 million cost of the streetcar."

Incidentally, Kim and Thurston report the townhall drew 500 people while the Sun Gazette's McCaffrey said there was "a nearly equal mix of streetcar proponents and ciritics." After John Antonelli, an audience member, asked all opponents to stand, my impression was that opponents represented perhaps 3/4 although another member of the audience suggested the opponents were closer to 2/3 of total audience.

At the online news site, ARL.now, there are two post of interest today. The first, labelled "Townhall Becomes Battle of Bus vs. Streetcar," (and includes a picture showing the large turnout) they provide a comprehensive report that now includes 173 viewer comments, including the following:

"Sitting at the end of the County Board table on stage was Libby Garvey, who garnered applause as she led the charge against the streetcar and in favor of an enhanced bus system. Garvey said she was concerned about the streetcar’s price tag ($250 million for the Columbia Pike line alone) and about disruptions to small business during construction.

“I believe Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) will get as much development as a streetcar, maybe even more,” Garvey said. “You can get the same benefit for a lot less money, which means that there’s a lot of money left over to actually help small businesses. My biggest concern is [the construction process]… no matter what we do, people will not be able to get to those small businesses, and they can’t survive.”

"Those points were countered by county staff, who that said studies have shown that fixed rail attracts more investment, that BRT without dedicated lanes (like it would be on the Pike) does not attract development,  and that the rail construction process will take place in small sections that will only take about a month to complete. Staff also said that a survey of Pike residents indicates that nearly 20 percent of respondents would ride a streetcar but not a bus.

"Garvey was skeptical, calling into question some of the studies done that supported the streetcar option over BRT.

“The statistics that are cited, it’s really fact of fiction,” she said."

In the second post of interest at ARL.now are the statements on the streetcar forum issued by the pro-streetcar group's Arlington Streetcar Now's president John Snyder and that of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit's spokesman, Peter Rousellot.

Earlier this evening, the Washington Post's Patricia Sullivan updated her story on the streetcar forum, writing in part:

"A moderator struggled to keep control at Wednesday’s meeting as a crowd questioned and shouted down County Board and staff presentations. One person called for all opponents of the streetcar to stand, while another, incensed that the event was ending at 9 p.m. before all questions were asked, tried to shout down the board’s chairman, J. Walter Tejada.

“I spent my whole evening here and wasn’t able to tell the County Board what I thought,” said Josh Ruebner, a resident of the Columbia Pike area for 14 years. “This is simply a gentrification scheme to benefit developers.”

"The county staff and four of the five elected board members said a streetcar line is needed along Columbia Pike because it can carry about twice as many passengers as a bus can and, if population estimates are correct, 14,000 new apartments and condos will be built in the area in the next decade or two."

Two final points. If you're looking for a good resource to begin learning more about Arlington County's Columbia Pike streetcar initiative, the website of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit is highly recommend. Second, if you're looking for a debate that should bring out more truth about the costs and benefits of the streetcar vs. BRT, I recommend the April 10 meeting of Arlington Committee of 100.

UPDATE (3/29/13) Here's an interesting few paragraphs from WTOP 103.5 FM's coverage, dated 3/28/13:

"There's a less expensive alternative (to streetcars) that's much more likely to leave some money in our budget to help with affordable housing," says Board Member Libby Garvey, which drew loud applause from the crowd during the town hall.

"The streetcar plan would be rolled out in two phases, covering Columbia Pike and Crystal City. The initial cost on the Columbia Pike system would be $249 million.

Garvey and members of the Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit back a bus-rapid transit option that would cost about $50 million.

"We continue to be deeply concerned about the unwillingness of the county board to fairly consider transit options for Columbia Pike, other than the fixed-rail streetcar. There is much evidence that rational and viable alternatives exist," says Peter Rousselot, spokesman for the Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit.

"Unfortunately, as the county board has done on other occasions, it used most of the Town Hall merely to restate the same claims in favor of the streetcar proposal without allowing a full discussion of other options." (emphasis added)

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