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Columbia Pike Streetcar: Arlington Board OKs New Agreement with Fairfax County

Garvey: Project feels 'un-Arlington.'

A wooden model of the planned Columbia Pike streetcar is on display in the Arlington County administration building in the Courthouse community. Photo by Jason Spencer.
A wooden model of the planned Columbia Pike streetcar is on display in the Arlington County administration building in the Courthouse community. Photo by Jason Spencer.

A split Arlington County Board moved the controversial Columbia Pike Streetcar project further along Tuesday night. 

The board voted 4-1 to approve an agreement with Fairfax County that will carry both jurisdictions through the remaining environmental planning and final design of the $250 million project.

Board member Libby Garvey once again tried unsuccessfully to derail the project during what was essentially a routine matter. Garvey, who has emerged as an ardent opponent to the streetcar project, asked that Tuesday's vote be deferred until an independent cost-benefit analysis of the project had been completed and shared with the public.

"In the 15 years I was on the school board, we never voted for a large project until the board knew exactly what it was getting and where the money was coming from. This approach is why our schools are known for building on-time and on-budget," Garvey said. "This project feels so un-Arlington in its approach. We're not sure what we need, we're not sure what the cost, but we are determined to build it no matter what."

The project agreement Tuesday night replaces a 2009 pact between Arlington and Fairfax counties regarding the planned transit line from Pentagon City to the Skyline/Bailey's Crossroads area.

It designates Arlington as the lead partner, establishes an executive committee of senior staff from both jurisdictions to guide the project management team and it slightly tweaks each side's financial obligation — Arlington will be responsible for 80.4 percent of the costs for the next phase of the project; Fairfax County, 19.6 percent.

Seven of the 19 residents who spoke on the project were against it. Many of the arguments on both sides have already been made, though streetcar critic John Antonelli cited plans in Fairfax to use the streetcar to spur economic growth and argued that county should pay more than roughly 20 percent.

Supporters talked about the decade-plus worth of work that's been put into the process, including countless hours spent at meetings and a long list of business decisions that have been made along the Pike in anticipation of the coming of the streetcar.

"We'd love to see our Fairfax neighbors coming through," said John Snyder, a Columbia Pike resident and chairman of Arlington Streetcar Now. "We'd rather see them coming through on a single vehicle rather than thousands."

Garvey insisted that years-old meetings failed to engage the public on the matter because movement on the streetcar project was so far away.

"This is not the Arlington I know. And this is not the board I know," she said. "So please, let's just take a deep breath and get a good comparative independent cost-benefit analysis and share it with the public. This will be their transit system. We owe our public that information and that discussion."

Arlington Board Chairman Walter Tejada, who committed to support the project once the county agreed to preserve all market-rate affordable housing along Columbia Pike, walked out of the chambers for part of Garvey's comments. When she was finished, he said he respectfully disagreed with many of her points.

"Just saying a cost-benefit analysis hasn't been done doesn't make it true. I suspect if we did another one and they didn't like the outcome, they'd say do another one," board member Chris Zimmerman said. "I understand this is a decision some people simply disagree with. And that's fine. But we have gone through an elaborate number of studies and evaluations."

Just before the vote, Garvey asked county staff to deliver that analysis to her.

Board member Mary Hynes said moving forward with Fairfax County might answer the questions Arlington needs in order to once again pursue federal funding. In May, the Federal Transit Administration decided to leave the Columbia Pike streetcar off of its funding list, leaving a $75 million hole in the project.

Tejada told Patch late Tuesday that rather than plugging that hole with federal dollars, the county may choose to use revenue from a regional transportation tax levied in Northern Virginia thanks to Gov. Bob McDonnell's landmark transportation bill.

Tejada said the county didn't have a firm deadline for completing the next phase of work with Fairfax County.

"Infrastructure is complicated. It's expensive," he said. "The longer we wait, the more expensive it could get."

The next phase of the streetcar project includes design of an operations and maintenance facility and design of the Skyline Station. In all, its budget is $999,131.

Fairfax County's portion of the work will not exceed $195,830, according to the agreement. Fairfax must pay Arlington within 30 days of being billed.

Arlington County issued a news release late Tuesday saying three contracts would be awarded for the next phase of the project, and that AECOM had already been chosen as recipient of the first one.

Zimmerman began taking fire last year from streetcar opponents for doing freelance work for a subsidiary of AECOM in Canada. At a heated forum in May, he said that he did two days of work for that company that resulted in him receiving $510.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is expected to take action on this matter later this month.

Allen Muchnick July 17, 2013 at 12:52 PM
The statements that the Pike Streetcar project would cost only $250 million and now has a $75 million funding shortfall are erroneous. In April 2013, the Federal Transit Administration revealed that "the potential cost estimate for the project ranges from $255 million to $410 million, with a "most likely" cost of $310 million." This is reported on the Arlington County website here: [ http://www.columbiapikeva.us/streetcar-transit/columbia-pike-streetcar-fta-update-april-2013/ ] . Furthermore, this estimate is in addition to the separate--but essential--Super Stops (ca. $24 million) and Pike Multimodal ($79 million plus) projects. Thus, the actual cost for the Pike Streetcar is almost certainly greater than $400 million and likely to exceed $500 million--all to replace 10 EXISTING Metrobuses serving Pentagon City with the same number of EQUALLY SLOW streetcars.
Tom July 18, 2013 at 05:00 PM
"Pike Multimodal ($79 million plus) projects"...Yes this project is essential but it's essential independent of the Streetcar project. This project includes significant, long overdue redevelopment of Columbia Pike, the road, the sidewalks, the lights and signage. The same sort of investment that has been made to Wilson Blvd, Rosslyn and Crystal City is finally coming to Columbia Pike. This project is essential even if streetcar, articulated bus or BRT never happen and therefore should be decoupled from the streetcar debate. And Multimodal is already 80% fed funded.

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