Study Boosts Case for Columbia Pike Streetcar

Rendering of Columbia Pike streetcar system.

by James A. Bacon

Investing $284 million in a streetcar system along Columbia Pike would generate between $3.2 billion and $4.4 billion in net tax revenue for Arlington and Fairfax Counties, over and above capital and operating costs, over 30 years, according to a new analysis by HR&A Advisors prepared for Arlington County.

The street car system — 14 streetcars stopping every quarter- to half-mile — would run between Bailey’s Crossroads in Fairfax and Pentagon City in Arlington. Travel time between the two points would be 23 minutes, only one minute longer than for the buses, but the street cars would carry 3,200 more passengers daily and would generate more  real estate investment along the corridor, concludes “Columbia Pike Transit Initiative: Comparative Return on Investment Study.”

“This study further demonstrates that streetcar is the right investment for Arlington,” said Arlington Board Chairman Jay Fisette in announcing the study.

Streetcar opponents had argued that the streetcar would cost far more than upgrading the bus system to 60-foot, articulated buses. The capital cost (in 2014 dollars) would be only $67 million for the buses compared to $284 million for the streetcars, while buses would cost only $140 million to operate and maintain over 30 years compared to $230 million for the streetcars. Total difference between buses and streetcars: $217 million over 30 years, averaging $7.1 million a year (assuming no adjustment for net present value).

But HR&A’s survey of the literature and in-depth analysis of four streetcar case studies suggests that the perceived permanence and desirability of the streetcar would induce significantly more real estate investment along the corridor and create more jobs. Currently, properties in the corridor have a total assessed value of $7.8 billion and generate $78.2 million a year in property tax revenue. While improved bus service would bolster property values, a streetcar line would boost them even more, yielding a 6% differential in residential property values for streetcar over bus, a 5% premium for retail property and a 6% premium for office property after 10 years.

While the Pentagon City sub-market is likely to be fully built out within 30 years under any transportation scenario, a streetcar line would turbo-charge construction along Columbia Pike and in Bailey’s Crossroads, where current property values do not support the more expensive concrete construction required for higher-density infill and redevelopment.

The chart below compares the baseline development (no transportation investment) scenario with the improved bus line (TSM 2) and streetcar scenarios:


HR&A interviews with 10 developers and property owners and six retailers active in the corridor found that a majority (“most”) confirmed that a streetcar would appeal more to riders, lead to a growth in rental and lease rates, and support greater development density. Some (“a smaller number”) worried that only a Metro-level investment would have a meaningful impact on property values, and that fragmented property ownership along the corridor would pose a major obstacle to redevelopment.

The study pointed to another big advantage of streetcars.

Transit has the potential to not only increase the value and quantity of real estate development, but alter its form by promoting compact development and walkability. Recent research from the George Washington University School of Business has found that walkability is a critical neighborhood amenity in the DC region; areas identified as “WalkUPs” because they are walkable command significant premiums over non-walkable places (as high as 75 percent for office and 71 percent for for-sale housing) and are also attracting an increaseing share of the region’s development. …

To the extent that transit is recognized as a visible, valuable place-making amenity that provides uniqueness to the surrounding area, new development will be oriented toward it. This orientation may be in the form of pedestrian-oriented design (engaging, varied ground floors that abut the sidewalks), pedestrian amenities (such as trees, sidewalks, and benches), or clustering of new development at transit nodes.

However, the study also points to risks, particularly the uncertainty of future demand for office space from the federal government and federal contractors, and the impact of competition from transit-oriented development elsewhere in Northern Virginia, especially in Tysons and Potomac Yards in Alexandria.

Of perhaps greater concern, while the study calculated the tax revenue from  new development into its cost-benefit calculations, it did not take into account the increase in services demanded by new residents and businesses. Four thousand new housing units (with perhaps 6,000 people living in them) would create additional demand for schools, public safety and other local government services. Nor did the study take into account sums that Arlington and Fairfax Counties might expend on streetscape improvements to make the corridor more walkable.

Bacon’s bottom line: No doubt skeptics will subject the study to closer scrutiny, as well they should. But my quick-and-dirty reading suggests that its broad conclusions are supportable: A streetcar line will accelerate the evolution of Columbia Pike into a walkable, transit-oriented community, it will grow the tax base, and the ensuing tax revenues will greatly exceed the cost of building and operating the system.

That raises a logical question: If the streetcar system will have the impact that the consultants say it will, why not use “value capture” as a financing technique? Instead of asking county taxpayers generally to bear the cost and shoulder the risk of the project while billions of dollars of economic value flow to lucky property owners, why not structure the financing so that property owners pay for a large part, perhaps all, of the cost? Establishing special tax districts around the proposed streetcar platforms, or up and down the entire corridor, could raise revenue from the anticipated surge in property values to pay off the bonds used to finance the project.

As it stands now, streetcars would be all gain, no pain, for Columbia Pike property owners. They would reap a huge gain in the form of higher rents and leases without expending any of their own resources or taking any risk. Why would any of them oppose the expenditure of public money? (The fact that any even a small number of property owners were dubious of the project, I find quite telling.) Ask them whether they would favor paying for the streetcars by means of a special tax district and see if they are willing to back up their words with hard cash.

If they are, political opposition to the streetcar line would evaporate. If they aren’t, political leaders should ask themselves why local government should assume all the financial risk.

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15 responses to “Study Boosts Case for Columbia Pike Streetcar”

  1. The report notes that currently the rents on the Columbia Tpke don’t justify the type of higher density mixed-use development sought by Arlington planners. It references an article suggesting a glut of new apartments in greater DC, and points to competition from Tysons and Ballston as potentially limiting the growth potential of the Tpke area. The contraction of the federal government and contractors is also mentioned. These are all rather worrisome indicators, yet the central conclusion is essentially “build it and they will come”. Build the $284 million streetcar system as opposed to the $67 million enhanced bus system, that is.

    Maybe there are good reasons to be bullish about this neighborhood, but I didn’t find the evidence too convincing that streetcars will be the cause for turbocharging redevelopment. Is it a hip/cool factor with streetcars that is lacking with buses? There aren’t real significant differences in service capability between an enhanced bus model and streetcars. And when it comes down to “bang for the buck”- couldn’t the argument be made in favor of buses? I’m not advocating for one or the other, it just it seems like these questions need to be debated. A lot of hypotheticals and reliance on questionable case studies like Portland and Boston (where the Silver Line was built to serve poor neighborhoods and not necessarily for the type of upper-class redevelopment aimed for in Arlington).

    1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
      Tysons Engineer

      “enhanced bus system will do”

      No it won’t

      But in your defense, neither will this traffic merged street car system. This corridor needs traffic separated and intersection priority rapid transit. I don’t give a damn if its on rubber or metal. That is the most pointless part of the discussion. The lack of dedicated right of way for it to be able to run without impact from traffic is the waste of it all.

      It is penny wise, pound foolish. If they were to actually make it enhanced rapid bus service, ie BRT, ie need a dedicated bus lane, then I’d be all for it. Unfortunately that cost would be closer to $400 million. For a dedicated streetcar it would be ~$650 million.

      If that was being proposed by the detractors you might actually get some agreement from people who actually know transportation planning. But unfortunately the anti-transit crowd has gotten its hands into this story and would rather pretend that adding more buses or longer buses will solve the problem

      It wont, stop pretending it will.

      Same message goes to the street car crew. Just cause its a street car doesnt mean anything either. Solutions require properly investing, and that costs money, but don’t just throw away money. Spend a bit more, get the dedicated right of way that is necessary.

      1. “No it won’t”… “It won’t, stop pretending it will”

        Care to make an actual argument against enhanced buses?

        That report is junk and you know it..

        1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
          Tysons Engineer

          Odd it made a copy of my post.

        2. Tysons Engineer Avatar
          Tysons Engineer

          I did. Enhanced bus service is dealing with a volume issue when the critical constraint is flow. If you don’t get traffic separation you are just wasting money. I’d rather see no money spent this year, saving up for 2 more years, if it meant a dedicated lane at that time, than to throw good money with bad solutions like “enhanced bus service” which is the lingo de-jour for anti-transit folks.

          After all, its enhanced. Did the blue ribbon commission determine it as an acceptable solution?

          Enhanced bus service only works in low traffic zones where people are waiting in lines to ride a bus. That would work in a place like Reston, Loudoun, or Hernon with their express buses because it is a pure capacity issue. But it won’t do anything to solve columbia pike.

          And at what point did I say the report wasn’t junk? My prior response had the argument, you chose to ignore my rationale.

          1. I agree with TE that separate RoW for light rail or enhanced bus service is a key to success.

            Government officials need to separate the facts on increased use of transit from the attempt to get more density. And those getting greater density need to pay the bulk of the costs for the infrastructure that allows the density.

      2. PenroseBud Avatar

        Thank you for framing the issue so clearly and cutting to the heart of the matter. Finally, I can articulate why I’m against the streetcar: if we’re spending $287M, I’d rather we spend it towards dedicated right-of-way (which really should be implicit with the BRT option for that term to be accurate). Unfortunately, the discussion has moved far beyond that and is riddled with inaccurate terminology, a lack of specificity, and political platitudes. Anyway, given the importance of dedicated ROW, how did you arrive at the $400M estimate for true BRT? Also, is it physically possible to realize dedicated ROW on the Pike, and what’s the likeliest way it would be implemented?

        1. larryg Avatar

          I’m not understanding the dedicated right of way issue.

          how do you take an existing street with intersections and basically take away one of the general purpose lanes and dedicate it to one use and not have chaos on the lanes left?

          I assume Columbia Pike is a 2×2 4 total lane configuration. If you “take” the right lane for dedicated use – how to other vehicles make right turns and such?

          if you “take” the left lane – how to other vehicles make left turn at the signals?

          or perhaps I’ve totally off base and need some help to explain what I don’t understand.


          1. PenroseBud Avatar

            Apologies in advance, this will be long-winded, but it’s just to organize my thoughts.

            I like to start my analysis in an ideal world without constraints, and I think that an underground rail line would be at the top of the wish list. That option has complete separation from auto traffic and thus dedicated right-of-way (ROW). I think these two properties are key to the desirability of this option. It works because you’re purely expanding the capacity and throughput of the system.

            But reality intervenes, constraints are introduced, and compromises have to be made on aspects of the ideal solution. After we identify why underground is not viable, is complete separation via a raised railway feasible? Again, there’s ready reasons against that, but once those are identified, we can probably all agree that complete separation just isn’t practical.

            So if both modes, individual auto and public transit, have to operate at street level, can we preserve a high degree of separation by adding new lanes exclusively for public transit (i.e. widen the road)? There’s ample reasons against this option too, but here, I’d want to know specifics (e.g. eminent domain issues, lengthy implementation time, general breakdown of exorbitant construction costs).

            But after all this, we’ll arrive at the premise for your question – how do we achieve separation when public transport and autos are forced to share the same existing street? Unfortunately, by taking away a general purpose lane to preserve dedicated ROW for public transport. And you’re absolutely right, “chaos” is the result, as indicated by this .

            But please let me take a step back. TysonsEngineer (TE) asserts that it’s possible to achieve dedicated ROW for $400M-$650M. And my questions were 1) how were those costs estimated and 2) what would the implementation look like? For now, I’ll guess that TE’s implementation is widening the Pike and adding lanes. If this is a legit possibility at those costs, then as of yesterday, I’d prefer the $287M to go towards widening the Pike (i.e. to create dedicated ROW) than to be spent on the current streetcar plan.

            I’m not a civil engineer, and I’m still going over the reports. Maybe the board has arrived at the right conclusion, but I’m just not sold on the current plan yet. To me, the board has lost some credibility after the $1M Super Bus Stop and the issues with Long Bridge Aquatics Center. I also think the board could do a better job of communicating their argument for the current plan. I wonder if the world has changed enough to merit reconsideration of the Co. Pike plan and even the Arlington capital improvement plan. The federal fiscal situation and the state of technology (e.g. smartphones, self-driving cars) has changed a lot since 2003-2005.

            So for now, I’ll keep researching.

          2. larryg Avatar

            aw yes.. the niggling realities:

            ” State Route 7 (SR 7) is a major primary state highway and busy commuter route in Northern Virginia, United States. It travels southeast from downtown Winchester to SR 400 (Washington Street) in downtown Alexandria. Its route largely parallels those of the Washington & Old Dominion Trail (W&OD Trail) and the Potomac River. West of I-395, SR 7 is part of the National Highway System”

            this has the same problem Rt 29 has in Charlottesville i.e. a major road of statewide significance wongly believed to be a locally-owned asset.

            In both cases a strategic state road that was originally built to connect towns and cities, is now thought to be a local road for local purposes and any pretense of it continuing to function as a primary road is not even fathomed because most don’t know where the road came from to start with.

            in terms of buying new right-of-way – I’d like to see that cost… including the taxes lost to the properties converted to public infrastructure.

            but even then the idea of having a dedicated right-of-way still will induce chaos on left and right turning cars – there is no way to de-conflict it and yet the supporters of it blithely ignore it.

            and I do not understand the dedicated right-of-way idea as street cars of the past usually ran smack in the middle of the car lanes even straddling them.

            even NYC which has essentially all but banned private cars from some of its streets – does not have dedicated lane streetcars.. not even street cars.. for that matter.

            sometimes there is _NOT_ a fine line between wacky and innovation – it’s a chasm!

            the whole concept is inexplicably bizarre – on it’s face. it’s laughable in concept before you ever get to the money part.

            it sounds like a high school “think-out-of-the-box theme paper.

            once upon a time there were some folks who said: ” gee, wouldn’t it be neat if we could take over a road and turn it into a streetcar route and tell cars to find other places to be – and the best part is – we’d publicly fund it”.

            the right wing loves stories like this.. because it becomes super easy to apply the “loon” label…

            sorry – not buying it.. not an inch.

          3. larryg Avatar

            oops.. got my state route number wrong:

            ” Virginia State Route 244 (SR 244) is a primary state highway in the U.S. state of Virginia. Known as Columbia Pike, the state highway runs 8.25 miles (13.28 km) from SR 236 in Annandale east to SR 27 and Interstate 395 (I-395) at the The Pentagon in Arlington. SR 244 is a major southwest–northeast thoroughfare in northeastern Fairfax County and eastern Arlington County, connecting Annandale with SR 7 at Bailey’s Crossroads and SR 120 in the multicultural Westmont neighborhood of Arlington.”

            everything else applies. It’s a State Road originally built as a highway to connect places – not “be” a place.

            actually has an interesting history:

            ” Columbia Pike dates to 1810 when the U.S. Congress chartered a turnpike Company to build three separate roads through the newly formed District of Columbia to outlying destinations.[3] One of these roads was to be built through a portion of the District of Columbia that had previously been part of Virginia. This portion was then known as Alexandria County, D.C. (now Arlington County, Virginia). The purpose of this road was to provide access westward from the new Long Bridge that predated the 14th Street Bridge complex to the Little River Turnpike Road, now Virginia State Route 236. The new road was built on a pre-existing cow path as the Washington Graveled Turnpike and was also known as the Washington Road, the Columbian Road, and the Arlington Turnpike. The U.S. Department of Agriculture paved the road with concrete in 1928 from the bridge west to Palmer’s Hill in Barcroft as part of an experimental testing program.

            Virginia Route 720 Shield –
            Columbia Pike was first numbered as State Route 720 in 1930 from U.S. Route 1 near the Long Bridge west for around 1 mile (1.6 km). In the 1933 renumbering, it was renumbered State Route 244 and the numbering was extended first to State Route 7 at Bailey’s Crossroads and then, between 1934 and 1937, further west to its current terminus at SR 236 in Annandale. With the construction of the Pentagon Columbia Pike was replaced by the Shirley Highway as the Virginia approach to the Long Bridge/14th Street Bridge. By 1944, SR 244 was truncated at the Pentagon; the piece curving away from the original alignment became a state highway in 1964. Until the 1990s, Columbia Pike accommodated rush hour traffic by reversing the direction of one lane using overhead signals. In October 2010, Virginia transferred responsibility for the eastern portion of Columbia Pike to Arlington County.”

            the last sentence is important. VDOT no longer considers it a state road.

          4. PenroseBud Avatar

            You may very well be right in that “chaos” would result even after widening the Pike for a dedicated public transport lane. A traffic study would help enumerate the costs, but the one I linked to doesn’t evaluate that. Despite the costs to set it up and operate it, there should be benefits from economic development and possibly from traffic throughput. I don’t know what the cost-benefit analysis for this scenario would yield, I haven’t found one yet, maybe because it hasn’t been done.

            Rt. 29 in Charlottesville is a different situation because it’s clearly the biggest (read: primary) north-south road in that area. Even w/ UVA’s attempt to “localize” it, 250 provides a bypass for thru-traffic. I don’t know if other areas along Rt. 29 are “localizing,” but if they are, then I agree that’s hard to buy.

            Regarding the Pike, a cursory look at Google Maps shows that I-395 and Rt. 50 are both larger arteries from NoVA to DC. In fact, if you plot directions from Bailey’s Xroads into Downtown DC, it will suggest Rt. 7 south to I-395N or Carlyn Springs to Rt. 50E. I would guess that the main commuters using the Pike into DC would be located within a ~1 mi swath straddling the Pike, a certain proportion of which would use public transport. North or south of this swath, they would use one of the larger routes. This is semi-educated speculation at this point, but a demographic and traffic analysis would certainly be useful here.

            So I think the Pike east of Bailey’s Xroads is not a completely ludicrous place to convert from a strategic or primary road to a local one. I’ll contend that it lost that distinction to the two interstates 395/66 and Rt. 50. Upgrading public transport in accordance with that effort would hopefully increase the proportion commuters using it (i.e. lowering the proportion of private cars). I think we could derive the magnitude of this effect from current studies, but I’m not certain it’s been explicitly estimated.

            Anyway, I don’t know. It’s probably the case that all the feasible options are lacking; it’s certainly the case that people will gripe about whichever one is implemented; and maybe, we should just sit tight for self-driving cars to chauffeur those of us lucky enough to be employed 20 years from now. Let’s spend the $287M investing in self-driving cars and render the entire public transportation issue a moot point.

          5. larryg Avatar

            I’d not dispute the part about converting it to local use. As you point out there are other roads that are better for “connecting”.

            but I still don’t see how you get a dedicated right-of-way without conflicts with left and right turning cars?

            how will cars turn onto side streets without cutting through the dedicated lane (and vice versa)? there is no way to do this without stopping the street car – and that in turn undermines the supposed benefit of the dedicated right of way. And I haven’t even mentioned on-street parking … or entrances into parking structures.

            and if you obtain additional r/w, you are taking revenue producing/tax generating parcels that will be lost in the future. you need to account for that in any study claiming increased economic benefit .. some of it will be offset by the loss of revenues/taxes of existing productive parcels.

            I must be missing something or not understanding because right now this sounds just loony.

            what am I missing?

  2. […] Report: Streetcar Would Spur Development for Virginia’s Columbia Pike (GGW, Bacon’s Rebellion) […]

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