by James A. Bacon
Last week, I made the case that the best way to finance construction of the proposed Columbia Pike street car line in Arlington was to set up an improvement district along the route and impose a real estate tax surcharge on property owners to pay off the bonds. (See “A Second Opinion on the Columbia Pike Streetcar.“) “If the property owners are willing to go along, it’s probably a good idea. If they balk, it’s probably not.”
In response, I received an email from Eric Balliet, a communications specialist with Arlington County. His email is worth reproducing in full:
Your concern that the County is not asking the primary beneficiaries of streetcar – property owners along the streetcar line – to pay for these improvements is not completely accurate. Local funding for the streetcar will come from the Transportation Capital Fund, which is used for major investments in transportation infrastructure throughout the County. The Fund is supported by a commercial real estate tax rate of $0.125 per $100 of assessed value. This tax rate applies to all commercial and industrial properties – including those along the streetcar line. Before the General Assembly provided this funding mechanism for jurisdictions to improve transportation infrastructure, the County used limited general tax revenue for that purpose, including for development of Metrorail in the Rosslyn-Ballston and Route 1 corridors.
The County also has established tax increment financing (TIF) to capture the property value created by redevelopment to fund streetcar and other priorities. The Crystal City-Pentagon City-Potomac Yard TIF is helping to pay for infrastructure improvements such as streetcar in support of the Crystal City Sector Plan. The new Columbia Pike TIF will dedicate up to 25 percent of tax revenue growth generated by new development and property appreciation in the commercial and multi-family residential revitalization districts to affordable housing along the Pike. This ensures that some of the money generated by streetcar will help meet our goal of preserving existing affordable housing along the Pike as property values and rents increase.
One final note – regarding the capacity of streetcar versus bus: Today on Columbia Pike, nearly 600 bus trips per weekday carry more than 16,000 passengers daily. Buses already come every 2-3 minutes in rush hour. Based on updated regional population projections and County-adopted plans, we need transit capacity of 38,000+ daily on Columbia Pike by 2035 to ensure it doesn’t become gridlocked. There is not enough street capacity for buses alone to accommodate that many passengers. A streetcar vehicle can hold 100% more passengers than a regular bus and 40% more than an articulated bus. Accommodating more people in fewer vehicles is key to keeping traffic moving.
I thank Balliet for educating me about the mechanisms being used to finance the street car line, of which I had been unaware. This information enrichens the debate. I must give the Arlington Board credit for recognizing that commercial interests would be major beneficiaries of the county’s roughly $300 million streetcar investment and for creating mechanisms that would capture some of the value created by that investment to lessen the burden on general taxpayers. That alone puts Arlington’s streetcar proposal way ahead of downstate mass transit projects, such as Bus Rapid Transit in downtown Richmond and a light rail extension in Virginia Beach, which have no value-capture elements of any kind. So, I toff my hat to the Arlington Board.
That said, while preferable to funding the entire county share from General Fund revenues, Arlington’s financing mechanism is still deficient. First, by imposing what amounts to a real estate tax surcharge on all commercial and industrial properties, the board is creating what might uncharitably be termed a slush fund for transportation projects which, by their very nature, benefit some commercial interests but not others. While the mechanism is fair to residential taxpayers, it is not necessarily fair to commercial property owners. Second, using tax increment financing (TIF) to tap 25% of the growth in property tax revenue generated by new development is largely a cosmetic measure. Columbia Pike property owners enjoy the blessings of higher leases and rents but don’t pay any more under this scheme.
To my mind, there are two important benefits to a strict value-capture financing scheme. One is that it is fairer, requiring beneficiaries of the public improvement pay for the improvement. Second, it creates an objective and non-political mechanism for weighing the risk-adjusted rate of return on the improvement. Let’s imagine that we set up a special Columbia Pike Streetcar District and tell property owners in that district (picking numbers for purposes of illustration), “We’re going to add a 25% surcharge to cover the full cost of financing construction of the streetcar and pay for operating costs not covered by fares. In return, you will get a streetcar system which, by our calculations, will bolster your rents and leases by 10% over time. There are uncertainties in all these numbers but we think we’re pretty close. Would you vote for or against this idea?”
If presented with this choice, the property owners would engage in a vigorous debate over the merits of streetcars and the assumptions embedded in the proposal, leavened by their own intimate knowledge of business conditions and property values along the route. Unlike planners, politicians and pontificators, they would have skin in the game. They would have the most to gain if the streetcar is a hit and the most to lose if it’s a bust. They, unlike politicians, would be likely to base their preference not on ideology but upon a keen awareness of the bottom line. They would be far less likely to engage in wishful thinking. If a significant majority of property owners agreed — as they did when they set up the special tax district to finance U.S. 28 improvements near Washington Dulles International Airport — then the public can have far more confidence that the project makes sound economic sense. That’s no guarantee, of course; businesses often bet wrong on investments. But they bet wrong a lot less frequently than do politicians playing with others peoples’ money.
One last note: Regarding for the carrying capacity of buses versus street cars, there is a lively discussion on an email thread initiated by Rob Whitfield. Has anyone considered the economics of running double-decker buses along Columbia Pike?