What chance does the City of Falls Church have, practically speaking, to get its way with a trolley line plan amid a regional transit development frenzy, and against the designs of regional transportation planning groups, or its much beefier neighbors, Arlington and Fairfax counties.
That question was the proverbial “elephant in the room” of an otherwise crowded dining area of Falls Church’s Italian Cafe at lunch Tuesday, when the F.C. Chamber of Commerce and chapter of the League of Women Voters joined hands to host an informational forum on long-term transit, and trolley, development prospects.
If there are any trolley or rail lines to be built anywhere near Falls Church, as is now being considered in early planning stages, there will be a lot of muscle applied to have them diverted from the City’s major corridor, Route 7, toward intersecting with the East Falls Church Metro station, instead, or out to where aggressive development is underway in Merrifield.
The plan was included in the Transaction 2030 study five years ago, and is now being pursued by Arlington County.
Speakers at the event alluded to the prospect of competition for destinations of the proposed line. They included Falls Church Vice Mayor David Snyder, who has played a major role in regional transportation bodies on behalf of the City for many years, former Falls Church Councilman Dan Maller, secretary-treasurer of a new group, the Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition, and Stephen J. Del Giudice, Arlington County’s Transit Bureau chief.
The luncheon was a rare melding of Chamber and League of Women Voter constituents who filled the room to “SRO” capacity.
There were disagreements among the speakers, themselves, as Snyder advocated strongly for bringing a proposed trolley extension of the Columbia Pike rail project up from Skyline directly down Route 7, through Falls Church, to Tysons Corner.
While Del Giudice referenced the arguments for making the East Falls Church Metro station a better destination for the trolley, Maller said he favored a solution that would achieve both purposes.
Have the trolley go to the Metro station, he proposed, but then bring it from there back up N. Washington St. to Route 7 (West Broad) en route to Tysons. That both serves the benefit of the its link to Metro, and also brings it down what is expected to become Falls Church’s most robust development corridor in the future on N. Washington (Route 29).
The trolley plans on the drawing boards now do not require a dedicated lane, nor will they be bound, not entirely at least, by overhead electric power lines, given advances in battery technologies. Passenger platforms would be at street level.
When asked what the benefit of a trolley line, to be built at a hefty cost to taxpayers (the cost would be in “seven figures,” Maller said), compared to a cheaper “bus rapid transit” option, Snyder said the issue boils down to the attractiveness, both to the community and the rider, of a trolley over a bus.
“The image of the community is involved,” he said. “It spurs economic development and makes a statement.” On the other hand, he said, it is doubtful how many people will want to ride a bus.
The Falls Church Planning Department’s Wendy Sanford told the assembly that $350,000 in federal money acquired by Rep. Jim Moran will be put to feasibility studies of how a trolley coming up Rt. 7 would best interface with other regional transit plans, including the Duke and Beauregard corridors in Alexandria and Columbia Pike, Pentagon City and Skyline plans in Arlington.
Del Giudice referenced a new, national pro-rail movement called “Rail-Volution” that is encouraging such planning all across the U.S.
But among the problems are difficulties in getting funds out of Richmond, “slightly stalling” the effort, Maller pointed out. Right now, he conceded, “We are between a rock and a hard place.” Also, some grant money requires modest, as-yet lacking matching funds from the Falls Church City Council. Falls Church also lacks the scale of professional staffing. “It is a daunting challenge to make Falls Church something other than a small footnote in the process,” he said.
Asked about competing with Arlington or Fairfax for which way the trolley line will go, Snyder said that diverting the line to the East Falls Church Metro “will be very bad for Falls Church,” but that, “I hope there will be a collegial approach.”