With the approaching streetcar polarizing Arlington, I submitted to lunch with two local transit consultants.
Both lambaste their county for forging ahead with what they see as a $333 million gimmick without sufficient consideration of the $71 million alternative in some form of bus rapid transit (BRT).
“It’s a universal in the business that they overestimate benefits and underestimate costs,” says Sam Zimmerman, retired from the Federal Transit Administration and now consulting for the World Bank. County board presentations are filled “with myths and easily refutable nonsense.”
Robert Dunphy, emeritus fellow of the Urban Land Institute, finds it “frustrating that everyone’s a transit expert—their qualification being they have ridden the bus. People want new transit modes with technology, but it’s hard to present something sexy about a bus.”
To both professionals, the streetcar movement has hijacked the issue for Columbia Pike revitalization while ignoring practical obstacles: streetcars start and stop frequently, and cars can’t get through if one breaks down. Zimmerman rejects the “perceived permanence” argument. “Development will happen regardless due to Arlington’s proximity to the capital,” he said. “The Pike had a trolley a century ago, where is it? “
They cite success stories for BRT in Los Angeles, York (Ontario), Denver and the D.C. Connector. “People don’t care what the wheels are made of, they want speed, convenient schedules and comfort,” Zimmerman said. Though surveys show some people see regular buses as inconvenient and infrequent, modern BRT can overcome resistance with good express service and branding.
Dunphy says either the streetcar or BRT would raise the portion of Pike Arlingtonians using transit from 10 percent to perhaps 13. The consulting profession has done “a poor job in fairly evaluating streetcars,” he says, those eager developers poorly informed on less-pricey alternatives.
The pro-streetcar board has “fallen in love like they’re buying a car,” both say. “It goes beyond analytics.”
Other Arlington experts disagree. Ron Carlee, the onetime county manager who now manages Charlotte, N.C., says, “It wasn’t until Arlington announced plans for a streetcar that it got its first infusion of serious private investment in a generation. What would the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor be if it depended only on buses? A passenger always knows where a streetcar will go,” he added.
Chris Zimmerman, who left the board in January, knows my lunchmates from work as a transportation consultant around the county. He has advocated BRT in suitable locations, “but it works better in spread-out areas, not for tight urban commuting,” he said. After years of evaluating Columbia Pike—where there is no room for the dedicated lane many BRT’s require—“we concluded it’s either a streetcar or nothing. “
Spending millions on new buses “is too similar to what we have today,” Chris Zimmerman said. The streetcar’s optimistic ridership estimates, he says, are conservative, the projected long-term costs small compared with a sewage plant or Metro. What draws folks to streetcar is “not nostalgia but the quality of the ride,” he said. “Buses bounce you around, while people on light rail cars are willing to stand and comfortably hold on.” Buses can break down, too, he notes.
The streetcar points toward a future aimed at rebuilding a walkable, transit-friendly Crystal City, Pentagon City and Pike, Chris Zimmerman said. “That unlocks a whole lot of value in tax revenues. It’s Arlington’s edge in the infrastructure competition.”