Five Reasons for the Transit-Oriented to Question Pike Trolley

Most of the complaints I’ve heard about Pike Trolley are from the car-centric, NIMBY-ists who are worried about traffic during construction, their fear of sharing the lane with the streetcar or their desire for more public parking along the Pike. Frankly, those concerns don’t resonate with me yet I am skeptical of the planned Pike Trolley. Here’s why:

1. Impact on Current 16 Route Commuters. At present, WMATA offers two “Express” bus routes for Pike-area commuters to DC. These buses, a relative bargain at $1.50 per ride, travel at rush hour over the Roosevelt Bridge (16Y) and Rochambeau (14th Street) Bridge (16F) into DC (and back in the evenings). They are mostly full (occasionally overfull) on many of the trips. There are really only two options for these bus routes if the trolley is built: (a) cancellation or (b) forcing them to share the bus stops and street with the street car. Cancellation would mean a more expensive, more time-consuming commute, and further crowding on the already over-burdened Metrorail system. Sharing the road with the trolley would also lead to more congestion and longer trips both for trolley-riders and the DC-bound riders.

Aside from the 16Y (and 16L which largely bypasses the Pike), Metrobus today offers 10 bus routes that serve Columbia Pike in Arlington and either Pentagon or Pentagon City: 16A, 16B, 16D, 16E, 16J, 16P, 16F, 16G, 16H and 16K. Arlington’s ART 42 is another option for some Pike commuters. While there is some overlap, most of these bus routes pick up commuters from various parts of Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church or Alexandria. If Pike Trolley were built, the only outcomes are (a) cancellation of these bus routes, (b) some sort of short-bus route to the trolley (in many cases meaning two transfers for a commute to DC), or (c) sharing the road with the trolley. In all of the above circumstances, many commuters are sure to be worse off with Pike Trolley.

2. Pentagon vs. Pentagon City. The Pentagon is one of the largest bus terminals in the region. Roughly half of the buses down the Pike terminate there. Admittedly, many Pike Riders simply transfer to Metrorail, but more than a few (in particular, those who work elsewhere in Virginia, including many lower-income workers) transfer to another bus at Pentagon. The trolley presumably will displace many (if not all) of the Pentagon bound buses. That leaves those commuters with a relatively expensive and time-consuming single-stop journey on a crowded Metrorail car, or a seven-tenth of a mile walk under I-395 to catch their connection. Further, the platforms and escalators at Pentagon City Metro station are designed for smaller crowds as opposed to the Pentagon, and shifting all the Pike Ride commuters to this station is likely to make the morning crowds there intolerable.

3. Effect on Affordable Housing. The County spends a lot of resources on providing affordable housing. This is a policy, that, in general I think is a good one, although I harbor serious doubts that the broad policy aims can ever be met. At root, housing costs remain a function of supply and demand. Arlington is an inner-ring suburb with good public schools and it is close to jobs and transit (demand), and there are not a lot of housing units in the County or other similar parts of the DC-area (supply); as a result, it has high rents and real property values. Notwithstanding the new luxury developments, the string of apartment buildings from Route 50 to the County line offer significant savings over comparably sized units on the Orange and Blue/Yelllow line corridors. More simply, the most affordable transit-friendly rental units in Arlington County are currently along the Pike. Pike Trolley’s entire point is to get the yuppies who are afraid of the bus on mass transit, a move that will displace the working-class (largely immigrant) residents that are a huge part of the Pike’s current charm and flavor. Where will they go? Or will we spend money to build a streetcar that will lead to more spending on subsidies to preserve low-income housing?

4. Putting the Pike on the Map? I’ve heard this one a few times, and it goes something like this: (1) the Metrorail Map would include Pike Trolley, thus literally putting the Pike on the Map, or (2) the businesses along the corridor would become more attractive for outsiders to visit because of the ease and simplicity of the trolley. The Map argument does not hold up for me: WMATA just paid the original designer of the Metrorail map to suggest changes to take into account the Metro line to Tysons Corner and Dulles Airport. Neither the under-construction streetcar lines in DC nor Pike Trolley are on the new proposed map. This makes sense: streetcars are not Metrorail, they look different, are likely to be charged differently (I don’t expect one will be able to pay with a paper fare card on any DC-area streetcar), and are designed for a different purpose. Oh sure, they may re-name it “Pentagon City-Pike Trolley” Station but that’s as far as it will go. As for the businesses, I still struggle to see how someone from say, DC or the Orange-Line Corridor, would change from Metrorail to the Trolley to ride past the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City to go shopping on the Arlington portion of Columbia Pike (they may ride on to Bailey’s Crossroads, but that doesn’t help the tax base). Sure, we might get more bar and restaurant traffic, but I have a hard time seeing large amounts of transit-users flocking to hang out on the Pike when they can meet their friends in Clarendon or Crystal City with a Metrorail station steps away.

5. Neglecting current transit and pedestrian needs. In an upcoming post, I’ll talk about the many needs of transit users near Columbia Pike that should be addressed before the State and County spend any more money on the streetcar, such as the abysmal NextBus system, problems with late-night bus service, difficulty in choosing Pentagon or Pentagon City for a Metrorail transfer to head up the Pike, the inefficient traffic patterns at the Pentagon, and more.

Finally, there remain a host of additional unanswered questions: Will cyclists be able to take their bikes on the trolley? Does the Trolley eliminate the ability to build bike lanes on the Pike? How much of the cost of the system will be passed on to riders? How will the Trolley affect special-needs riders and their travel needs? What would be the impact on commuters when (not if) the Trolley breaks down with fewer alternate bus routes?  Stay tuned.

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