The Arlington County Board voted 4-0 to approve the development of a streetcar system along a five-mile stretch of the Columbia Pike corridor early Tuesday morning.
The vote reaffirms a 2006 decision and sets in motion a chain of events to develop and redevelop the Pike.
Chairwoman Mary Hynes, shortly before the 1:30 a.m. vote, said the matter boiled down to the need to increase the connectivity of existing bus and rail routes in Northern Virginia. She said she would love to see Arlington residents one day be able to take a one-seat ride to Northern Virginia Community College off Beauregard Street in Alexandria.
"Think of how many doors that will open," she said.
Board member Jay Fisette said the streetcar moves Northern Virginia away from its current "spider web" transit system to one that more closely resembles that other progressive cities, like Paris.
"To me, this is an investment, and it is the next generation of a regional rail system that will interconnect with the existing rail system we have," he said. "I also think it's a game-changer in terms of creating a sense of place. That does not happen with a bus.
The board was given a short presentation that laid out why county staff believed the trolley to be better than expanded or enhanced bus service along the Pike.
Board member Libby Garvey abstained from the vote, saying she needed more time to study the matter — and that the county's decision would not be irrevocable until the board hires a firm and executes a contract, which is at least a year away.
"Once you make a real apples-to-apples comparison… I cannot see how a streetcar is anything more than a bus with tracks and overhead wires. I just can't," she said.
"This issue is huge. … I am willing to be convinced by logic or data. But I'm not there yet."
The proposed trolley will run from the Bailey's Crossroads/Skyline area of Fairfax County along the Pike and end in Pentagon City, where it will eventually connect to a proposed Route 1 trolley.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on that county's participation on July 31.
The estimated $249 million streetcar system is expected to see ridership reach 30,000 people by 2030, and that's without taking into account substantial residential development anticipated along the Columbia Pike corridor over the next 20 years, Arlington County Transportation Director Dennis Leach said.
It's also expected to remove about 3,000 cars from the Pike on the average weekday, Leach said.
The streetcar has not been without its critics — at 11:40 p.m. Monday, 28 people had signed up to speak on the matter before a weary County Board.
Critics said the trolley was an unnecessary expense — a Lexus solution when the county should be looking at Hondas. Arlington resident John Antonelli called it "an effort to solve the problems of the new millennium with 18th-century technology."
Other residents complained of potential dangers to cyclists from trolley tracks and said the county should focus its energy on moving people along major north-south corridors, like I-395, instead.
Developing a streetcar system is expected to increase property values along Columbia Pike between 4 percent and 10 percent and to accelerate the pace of development by at least two years.
Arlington County could see $291 million in tax revenue over the next 30 years based on conservative estimates, Leach said.
County staff will now develop a management plan for the project and apply for a $75 million federal transportation grant.
Neighborhood Plan Includes More Affordable Housing
Before getting to the streetcar, the Arlington County Board spent five hours listening to testimony and deliberating on the Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Plan — a sweeping document that adjusts density and building heights along the Pike to account for substantial development over the next 30 years.
Currently, about 45 percent of units along Columbia Pike have been deemed affordable to people making up to 60 percent of the area median income. That is projected to shrink to 21 percent of the rental stock there by 2040.
For families making up to 80 percent of the area median income, 81 percent of Columbia Pike units are considered affordable, which is also projected to decrease. Those units should equal only about 35 percent of the housing stock by 2040.
Affordable housing is given priority in the Columbia Pike plan, though Board members Chris Zimmerman and Walter Tejada failed to convince their colleagues to commit a specific amount of public dollars to realizing that priority.
The plan relies on an estimated $200 million from the county's Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a revolving loan fund that subsidizes housing.
The plan does commit the county to preserving all affordable housing for low- to moderate-income families over the next 30 years — that is, housing deemed affordable to families of four making $86,000 or less.
"This really is something remarkable," Zimmerman said while a slideshow of photographs of Columbia Pike residents played behind him. "This is what we need to fight to preserve."
He added: "The good news is, we're not done."