- Arlington board members Jay Fisette, left, and Chris Zimmerman, right, chat with Alexandria Vice-mayor Kerry Donley. (Photo: TBD Staff)
The scene at Thursday night's joint Arlington County Board — Alexandria City Council meeting in Shirlington was jovial, almost like a family reunion. There were compliments ("you guys did a great job on that bike trail!"), hugs, and even some gentle ribbing. (Arlington board member Mary Hynes saying she doesn't go to Alexandria for dinner due to traffic; Alexandria Vice Mayor Kerry Donley assuring her he doesn't spend any money in Arlington when he bikes through Shirlington. All in good fun, right?)
But much like a lot of family gatherings, things got more serious once the subject turned to money. In this case, it was funding for an ambitious proposed transitway along U.S. Route 1 that would eventually connect the two municipalities.
A streetcar loop through Crystal City that connects with the Arlington side of Potomac Yard has long been a central part of the area's master plan, which was just finalized last month. Arlington and Alexandria have also long planned to connect the route with another planned for Alexandria's U.S. Route 1 corridor, starting with a rapid transit bus system that could eventually convert to light rail.
The bus transitway has already been set in motion; the two communities have $20.5 million in federal funding available once they complete environmental impact studies for the project. It's expected to be operational in Arlington as early as 2012 and in Alexandria in 2014.
But Alexandria also has a $240 million bill for a new Potomac Yard Metro station coming down the road, and its leaders will have to make strategic decisions on whether adding a streetcar to that area is financially possible, some board members pointed out.
"We’re still putting together for the $240 million Metro station," Alexandria councilmember Frank Fannon said. "We need to make sure we have the appetite in the city to take on another project."
"I agree that multi-modal transportation makes sense," councilmember Alicia Hughes added. "But in addition to making sense conceptually, financially it also has to make sense."
She pointed to Arlington's plans for Crystal City and Potomac Yard, which anticipates a significant increase in density for the area. Arlington's existing development along this corridor totals 35.8 million square feet; the allowed amount under the new plan is 59.4 million square feet.
By contrast, Alexandria has 7.5 million square feet of new development planned for its section of Potomac Yard, which currently only holds a strip mall shopping center that's home to Target and Shopper's Food Warehouse, among others.
"The Metro's $240 million, and it's another $140 million for a streetcar," Hughes said. "In looking at these numbers, what I see is more tax revenue needing to be generated to support the funding for this transportation than we have. The question becomes, how do we make this make sense for our citizens, above and beyond the concept?"
Arlington board members pointed out that the connectivity between the two areas will benefit both economically. "What we’re going to get is more than just the sum of the parts," Arlington board member Chris Zimmerman said. "The truth of the matter is we benefit from people going from one place to the other. And the easier it is to do that, the more valuable both communities will be."
The two governments will continue to use the same consultants and engineers through the various planning stages and feasibility studies, in order to ensure that the systems they develop will be cohesive, Alexandria director of transportation Richard Baier says. There's already a joint working group that meets monthly to go over the plans.
Both Alexandria Mayor William Euille and Arlington Board Chairman Jay Fisette closed out discussions at the meeting acknowledging that these are long-term plans that will involve continued discussions over the years. "While we need to continue to emphasize the economy of scale between Arlington and Alexandria, this could afford us some opportunities," he said. "So while some say it may be unfair for us to contribute to Arlington's streetcar extension, everyone will benefit as a result."
Fisette acknowledged that his counterparts to the south will have to determine whether the transitway will have the kind of ridership that justifies the expenditure. He added, however, that given plans to incorporate light rail in other parts of the area, including Alexandria and Fairfax, that it would be a missed opportunity to stop the streetcar at a certain point along Route 1. "You're on light rail from Fairfax, and it hits all these different areas, and then once it hits Four Mile Run you have to get off and take a bus?" he says. "It's not very logical from a regional perspective."