Columbia Pike Streetcar Would Bring Billions to Arlington and Fairfax

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab, published on March 27, 2014]

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A new study commissioned by Arlington County shows that the Columbia Pike Streetcar would spur billions of dollars in revenue for Arlington and Fairfax counties.

Between $3.2 billion and $4.4 billion in incremental benefits (over and above capital expenditures and operating costs) would be realized for the two counties over 30 years. This far exceeds the $300 million estimated capital costs of the streetcar project. The study also shows the streetcar outperforming enhanced bus service by $2.2 billion to $3 billion over that period.

HR&A Advisors, Inc. performed the study, which shows a much greater return on investment than a similar study performed in 2012 by the Columbia Pike transit initiative project team.

Enhanced bus, which is similar to bus rapid transit in terms of capacity but doesn’t operate in an exclusive lane, could be implemented along the same route (from Skyline in Fairfax County, along Columbia Pike, and through Crystal City to Potomac Yard) at a smaller expenditure, but also greatly reduced return, compared to streetcar.

According to the report, value would be added:

  • By creating 6,600 jobs over 10 years
  • By stimulating real estate development along Columbia Pike (both of higher density and at a quicker pace than the corridor with enhanced bus service), and
  • By adding $375 million to $735 million in tax revenue (over and above capital and operating costs) to Arlington over 30 years.

HR&A concluded that the streetcar would stimulate more construction than enhanced bus along Columbia Pike. This is particularly due to perception of the streetcar as being a more permanent and stable public improvement.

Developers believe a streetcar would confer great advantages to real-estate dynamics versus enhanced bus. Most retailers would be more likely to expand along a corridor with a streetcar than they would on a corridor with an enhanced bus, even taking into consideration a disruption to their service necessary for the streetcar’s construction, but viewed as worth it over the long term.

In addition to making better sense financially, the streetcar would also:

  • accommodate passengers better than enhanced streetcar
  • decrease congestion along Columbia Pike
  • enhance placemaking in south Arlington along the Columbia Pike corridor, and
  • allow Columbia Pike the ability to economically compete with other transit-oriented development corridors such as the Metro Orange Line in north Arlington.

imageIt should be noted that the Washington D.C. streetcar is expected to lead to billions in redevelopment along H Street NE. Norfolk, Virginia has seen $600 million in investment along its rail corridor since the Tide, Norfolk’s light rail line, opened in August 2011.

Alex Iams, acting deputy director of Arlington Economic Development, said the report shows that “the streetcar is essential in allowing Arlington the ability to continue to compete regionally, as well as nationally.”

Streetcar detractors have questioned how Arlington is going to pay for the public improvement project. The Federal Transit Administration decided not to fund Arlington’s streetcar under the Small Starts program, but recommended the county resubmit under a different grant program called New Starts.

Regardless of federal grant monies, Arlington is confident the streetcar makes financial sense, and will use the new HR&A study in its Capital Investment Plan, which will be released this spring detailing how the streetcar project will be funded.

HR&A Advisors has provided independent analysis to communities for decades and specializes in infrastructure analysis. Their study of the return on investment for the High Line in New York City (versus tearing it down) led to the creation of this now-iconic elevated park, an initial $100 million investment that has resulted in a return of more than $2 billion.

Artist rendering by Fairfax County and map by Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

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