Statement to County Board on Streetcar Proposal

The following is the statement made by Libby Garvey to the Arlington County Board regarding the proposed Columbia Pike Streetcar plan during the 7/23-24 meeting.

As I said on Saturday, I will abstain on this vote. I’ve been on the board for under four months. A lot has happened in that short time, including adopting our budget and our CIP.

I believe the choice between a modern streetcar system and a modern bus system for Arlington may be the most important decision I will make in what I hope will be a long tenure on this board. I’m loving this work.

This is a very complex choice. I need much more time for study than I have had to reach a final conclusion. I do not have to reach that conclusion for some time. The irrevocable decision will be made when we hire a firm, and sign a contract to begin construction. That’s at least a year or two out.

I do not want to take up much time in this lengthy meeting, but I feel I owe it to our public, my colleagues and our staff to outline my concerns. They are really quite simple right now: charts I’ve had a chance to look at in the Alternatives Assessment Report, indicate to me that there is very little and sometimes no difference in issues like trips per hour, service frequency, travel time and reliability between a streetcar and a modern bus system. I’ve seen many pictures of flashy buses that look like streetcars. I’ve just started to really study this issue but have already seen studies that indicate superior performance by a modern transit bus system over a streetcar. I understand studies and data on a subject like this are complex, and that many external factors affect a transit system’s performance. There are lots of studies and data I still need to review and understand.

At this early stage, before I’ve had a chance to really look at various studies and much data, it really is just good old simple common sense that is giving me pause. Once you make a real apples to apples comparison, using similar car designs, similar on and off loading and fare collection, similar stop designs, similar route designs…..I cannot see how a street car is anything more than a bus with tracks and overhead wires. I just can’t. I’ve talked to people who strongly support streetcars and we agree completely on what we want to accomplish, we agree on the goals, we agree about the kind of system we want that one that supports walkability, is an attractive easy to understand system, provides ease of access. We agree on everything until they say, “so it has to be a streetcar.” And I say “why?” From what I know, modern streetcar and transit bus systems can look and operate essentially the same except buses have no tracks or wires.

I’m still learning, but at the moment, my common sense is telling me modern bus transit systems are BETTER, especially when there is no dedicated right of way, because buses are flexible. When the lane is blocked, they can go around whatever is blocking the route.

And finally, connectivity. We all want a good regionally connected transit system. A streetcar simply isn’t going to go very far. A modern bus rapid transit system could easily extend into Fairfax and Alexandria. If we worked with those jurisdictions (not a simple thing to do, I know), we could go past Skyline and get to the large BRAC facility on Seminary Road and on to the King Street metro. We could go down Route 1 into Alexandria and even Fairfax.

And because data I have seen and simple common sense tell me there’s no difference, except a bus could be better, there are red flags all over this for me right now:

The disruption created by laying tracks down a heavily traveled transit corridor,

The need to put up wires when we’ve just undergrounded them AND just experienced serious electrical outages due to downed wires from the Derecho storm.

The lack of flexibility for a streetcar in an emergency.

Finally, of course, there is the cost. I will need a chance to study not only comparative analyses of how the two systems function but a cost benefit analysis that is easy for me and our public to understand.

That said, I know my colleagues and our staff have been working on this issue for years, decades even. And I respect that work I suspect both modern streetcar and modern rapid bus systems have changed over that time, likely quite a bit. While some people and the press may try to portray my remarks as critical of past board actions, they are not. I believe pretty much everything that has been done to prepare for the streetcar both along Columbia Pike and in Crystal City have been wise transit investments and will serve Arlington well no matter which transit method we ultimately build. I appreciate all the work that has been done to ensure that whatever system we ultimately build will be a model for the region and the nation.

Again, I’m sorry to take so much time in this lengthy meeting, but felt it important to be clear about where I am at this moment. The potential benefits and costs of a modern transit system will determine what we become as a County and what we can afford to do. This is huge.

I will continue to work hard to understand this complex issue. I am willing to be convinced by data or logic. But I am not there yet.

Jul, 24, 2012