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Arlington County Gets Push Back to Its Streetcar "Study"

Last week, an Arlington County press release touted a new study by HR&A Advisors, Inc., which showed "the Columbia Pike streetcar’s projected return on investment shows a multi-billion dollar benefit to Arlington and Fairfax Counties, far surpassing the project’s estimated capital cost. The economic return for streetcar also would greatly exceed the amount generated by enhanced bus service. The new analysis, released today, will be used by Arlington County as it updates its Capital Improvement Plan and streetcar project financial plan."

The economic study got the obligatory attention from the local media, e.g., see here for ARLnow's reporting.

A week later, opponents of the streetcar project have had a chance to study the consultant's report. Here's how the Arlington Sun Gazette's Scott McCaffrey begins his reporting of the push back (posted at InsideNoVa.com) by Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST):

"Opponents of the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar struck back at county officials April 2, critiquing the recently issued economic-impact study on the transit line as having been rigged from the start and making a number of inappropriate and faulty assumptions.

“The consultant has collected its $100,000 fee by taking the county’s orders and doing the predicted whitewash of the County Board’s desired outcome,” said Peter Rousselot of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, which supports enhanced, modern bus service for the Pike corridor.

“The losers are the county’s taxpayers,” who “paid for another worthless study,” Rousselot said in a statement."

And here's one key point in the competing issues between the streetcar supporters and opponents:

"The economic analysis, released in late March, concluded that a streetcar would prove a far better economic boost than either the current Metrobus network trundling up and down the Pike or enhanced “bus-rapid transit” service proposed by some.

"Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit countered that the survey reports – but streetcar boosters fail to highlight – that rental rates will increase along the corridor if a streetcar arrives. HR&A Advisors, which did the study, reported that a 10-percent “rent premium” was likely in the corridor, on top of normal increases.

"“Shifting money from tenants to landlords is not an economic benefit to the community,” said Rousselot, a former Arlington County Democratic Committee chairman."

Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST), which supports an attractive, but far less expensive bus rapid transit alternative has produced a five-page response to Arlington County's return on investment "study" that lists 15 reasons to disregard the county's so-called study. The "bottom line," according to AST:

"The consultant has collected its $100,000 fee by doing a shameless whitewash of the County Board's desired outcome. The losers are the County's taxpayers who not only paid for another worthless study, but may have to pay $310 million for a slow, uncomfortable, disruptive, hazardous, unattractive and inflexible system."

Finally, Virginia's inestimable, apolitical policy wonk, Jim Bacon has two long posts -- one post apparently written in response to the county's press release and the HR&A study, and a second post that takes into account AST's analysis. In the second post, Bacon first writes, "This is exactly what we need in the debate over Arlington’s proposed $284 million streetcar system for Columbia Pike: close scrutiny from local citizens." Bacon then goes on to explain:

"The paper is a rejoinder to a report issued by HR&A Advisors last week that concluded a $284 million investment (in 2014 dollars, $310 million in future dollars) in a Columbia Pike streetcar system would generate significantly higher economic benefit than a far less expensive investment in an upgraded bus system. My quick-and-dirty analysis found the main conclusions to be supportable, although I suggested that if the benefits were as great as HR&A says they are, perhaps the city should finance the project by means of setting up a tax district to pay off the bonds. For property owners, the increase in leases and rents would more than offset the higher taxes.

"Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit raises a number of issues that I had not considered. Some are unpersuasive but several of them give me pause. They bear a closer look."

Bacon's second post is worth reading in its entirety as is AST's analysis of the HR&A "study. Kudos to both Jim Bacon and the AST organization.

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