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Examiner Local Editorial: Arlington Board still pushing its 'trolley folly'

In 2009, The Washington Examiner harshly criticized Arlington County's plan to build a streetcar line on Columbia Pike. We concluded that a more flexible and affordable bus rapid transit system would be a much better option for the pike, which already has the most heavily used bus route in Virginia. We quoted Arlington Transit Advisory Committee member and retired federal transportation economist Joseph Warren, who warned that the county's 2005 streetcar study violated professional evaluation standards and was little more than a deliberate attempt to promote the board's preordained decision.

Four years later, members of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit -- including Peter Rousselot, a retired Yale- and Harvard-educated attorney who specialized in the valuation of rail and bus systems, World Bank transportation consultant Sam Zimmerman and Georgetown transportation instructor Robert Dunphy -- have come to the same conclusion: "A modern BRT system is clearly superior to streetcars in the Columbia Pike Corridor."

AST notes that the county board failed to conduct an independent cost-benefit analysis comparing streetcars with BRT. If it had, it would have also found BRT to be "the hands down winner." Rousselot methodically debunks Arlington's claim that the proposed five-mile streetcar line is the best transit option. "A modern BRT system will meet or exceed all of the same objectives as the streetcar -- but at a fraction of the cost," he writes.

Nevertheless, on July 21, 2012, the board approved a flawed Return on Investment study favoring streetcars that did not even compare the two in terms of economic development. And in just five years, the capital cost estimate for streetcars has skyrocketed to $250 million -- an increase of more than 55 percent. Rousselot estimates that construction of a BRT system would cost just a third of that amount, while saving up to $7 million on annual operating and maintenance costs.

BRT would add more than 8,000 new passengers at a cost of about $1,800 per daily rider. In contrast, "the streetcar option would cost almost $200 million more, but carry only an additional 1,600 daily riders, a staggering investment of $123,000 for each new rider," Dunphy noted. Staggering indeed, especially since both options would have only a "miniscule" effect on traffic congestion.

Yet the county board is still trying to ram its expensive trolley folly through without "a thorough community conversation," as Arlington tradition requires, on why anyone would still choose streetcars over BRT.