A Second Opinion on the Columbia Pike Streetcar

by James A. Bacon

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.

Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST) has issued a paper listing 15 reasons why the streetcar would be a waste of taxpayers’ money. “The consultant has collected its $100,000 fee by doing a shameless whitewash of the County Board’s desired outcome,” the paper concludes. “The losers are the County’s taxpayers who have not only paid for another worthless study, but may have to pay $310 million for a slow, uncomfortable, disruptive, hazardous, unattractive and inflexible system.”

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.

  • The reason the proposed streetcar system could carry more riders than the proposed enhanced-bus alternatives is that the streetcars would have fewer seats and more people would be forced to stand: 28 sitting and 126 standing versus 60 sitting and 34 standing. “This is pure sophistry: Take essentially the same-sized vehicles, make the vast majority stand in one, and then claim that only that vehicle can meet capacity needs.”
  • While the HR&A study says the streetcars would run almost as fast as buses, AST cites a study to suggest that buses average speeds twice that of streetcars.
  • HR&A argues that streetcars are needed because an upgraded bus system would be over capacity by the year 2035. “Beyond the irrationality of spending hundreds of millions now based on speculation more than 20 years in the future, the consultant completely ignores the simple solution of increasing the number of [Bus Rapid Transit] buses.”

AST also assails HR&A’s impact on leases, rents and property values in the streetcar corridor. While I am not convinced — I think property values could rise — there is no denying the uncertainty associated with any such forecasts. Even the consultants conceded in an earlier report that streetcar impacts on property values can vary widely, depending upon a number of contextual factors.

It’s difficult for open-minded citizens who don’t have  time to pore through endless studies and documents to appraise the conflicting assertions and counter-arguments. And I would argue that we shouldn’t have to. There is a simple acid test: Structure the financing so that the chief beneficiaries of the improvements — property owners along the streetcar line — pay for those improvements through a special tax levy. If the property owners are willing to go along, it’s probably a good idea. If they balk, it’s probably not.

If streetcar service makes properties so much more valuable that tenants are willing to pay 10% more in leases and rents (say, $5,000 annually for a property), then a surcharge increasing the property tax (by, say, $2,500 annually) should be easy to bear. In that case, why wouldn’t the County Board want the prime beneficiaries to pay for the improvement rather than dunning taxpayers generally? If the deal cannot be structured to yield such a win-win outcome, or if property owners are reluctant to assume the risk associated with trading higher taxes (a certainty) for higher rents (speculative), that should be a warning that the risk-adjusted economic value created does not justify the investment.

Whose analysis would you trust — property owners with skin in the game, or consultants on the payroll of the streetcar advocates?

I am not saying that the streetcar project is a bad idea. The proposal could work out just fine. It’s entirely possible that the streetcars will be a hit, property values will rise, new development will occur, and tax revenues will more than cover the up-front capital costs and ongoing operating costs. But things could go wrong, too. There could be cost overruns or project delays (consider the Rail-to-Dulles project and Norfolk’s light rail). The streetcars might attract fewer riders than expected. Businesses and households may pay less of a premium to work/live on Columbia Pike than projected. The re-development of Columbia Pike may take longer than anticipated. There is no way of knowing. That’s why it’s critical to subject the proposal to a marketplace test: Would property owners voluntarily subject themselves to a tax, and would investors buy the bonds?

It strikes me that the Arlington Board has simply made up its mind and wants to forge ahead with the project regardless. It’s always easier to take risks with other peoples’ money than with your own.

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12 responses to “A Second Opinion on the Columbia Pike Streetcar”

  1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
    Tysons Engineer

    Here are my thoughts on the mess.

    Too much is being made of the wheel vs rail, and not enough about lane separation.

    Without traffic separation both ideas are stupid, should be held off, until money is gathered to support lane separation. Thats where the money should be spent.

    Providing the streetcar without this would be a non-improvement. Calling it “bus enhancement” without this is a flat out lie.

    It reminds me of the tried and true debate over above or below ground in Tysons. It doesn’t matter people, the big problem with the Silver Line wasn’t weather it was above or below, but rather the fact that after Tysons it runs in the middle of a highway instead of in establish commercial areas. So much focus went into above or below, people simply ignored the far more relevant function of where to put the stations.

    Hold off on both, acquire the right of way needed, build either a real BRT or a streetcar and fund the difference (after right of way cost) from a special tax district.

    If developers along the corridor want rails, then have them pay for the difference. But remove the right of way from the equation, that is needed either way, otherwise save the money, neither solution does jack squat.

  2. Agree wholeheartedly that the Streetcar issue that is critical is separation of RoW from auto traffic. Otherwise there is no real gain for transit users. They just muddle along in traffic.

    1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
      Tysons Engineer

      Well, someone check the air temps in hell cause me and TMT have finally agreed on something 😛

  3. Richard Avatar

    Who are these Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit? I’m all for alternative voices, but not anonymous ones. I want to know who’s paying for their analysis. At least with the consultants we know they’re working for Arlington County. Who is Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit working for?

  4. larryg Avatar

    I want to know where ALL of the funding is coming from for both capital and operating expenses and if any of it is State or Federal funding – i.e. not local funding.

    then I’d like to know how the money will be raised locally because unless I do not understand, my understanding is that you cannot create a transportation district that applies to people in that district unless a majority support the district and supplemental taxes.

    Normally this kind of thing happens to a small number of property owners who basically believe that supplemental taxing will ultimately provide facilities and infrastructure that will increase the value of their property.

    the further you get away from the nexus between who pays and who benefits – the more you have to look at who the advocates are – and what their interests are in raising taxes on others.

    sound like a right-winger, don’t I?

  5. timwise Avatar


    Visit the AST site to find out who they are. They are fully bipartisan. Have support of D’s and R’s and I’s. In fact, one of the founders was a former chair of one party. AND, they pay their own way! See their homepage.

    Tim Wise

    1. Richard Avatar

      Tim Thanks for the reply. 1. Being self-described as nonpartisan is not particularly meaningful (See eg Jefferson Policy etc.) but I do see that AST has a number of individuals listed who presumably are not employees of a bus manfucturing company. That’s good. 2. It would be helpful to learn who initially paid for the wonderful website and the excellent research, and the background of who’s writing the copy. That is probably asking too much, but with the internet and politics being the way they are (say anything, hide who”s paying your salary), you need to be careful before you give an organization or an individual credibility

  6. If it cannot provide a seat it is not transporfation. It is toture.

    1. larryg Avatar

      are streetcars really appropriate for small kids, the elderly and handicapped?

      exactly what problem is being solved – and how does it help the above?

  7. […] James A. Bacon of Bacon’s Rebellion has also voiced his skepticism about the Columbia Pike str… He cites an AST paper: […]

  8. […] James A. Bacon of Bacon’s Rebellion has also voiced his skepticism about the Columbia Pike str… He cites an AST paper: […]

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