Columbia Pike streetcar

A rendering from the Arlington County government shows how the Columbia Pike streetcar system might have looked. With the streetcar project abandoned, county officials have turned to expanding bus options in the corridor.

Nearly six years after the Columbia Pike streetcar proposal came crashing down – much to the dismay of Fairfax County officials – there seems to be no stomach to resurrect the idea among candidates in the July 7 Arlington County Board special election.

But those candidates did press for increased attention to mass-transit along the Columbia Pike corridor, and leveled criticism at the county government for not acting fast enough or going far enough in meeting the transit needs of residents there.

“On Columbia Pike, we need a great deal more,” said Susan Cunningham, an independent candidate in the three-way race to succeed County Board member Erik Gutshall, who died in April.

She wasn’t alone. Takis Karantonis, the Democratic nominee, said he was “quite disappointed” that the county government (by its own acknowledgment) dropped the ball on bus-network upgrades following elimination of the streetcar plan.

Karantonis was serving as executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization during the streetcar battle, and was among the most prominent supporters of building it.

But in speaking to the Arlington Committee of 100 during a June 10 candidate forum, he indicated his election, if it happens, wouldn’t lead to a revival of the idea.

“The voters have spoken, the message was received,” the Democrat said.

Karantonis said that improvements to the bus system along the Pike were needed now more than ever. “I’m a big proponent of buses,” he said.

The proposal to run a five-mile streetcar line from Pentagon City west into Fairfax County had the support of most of Arlington’s political leadership and was largely humming along through various planning stages until the election, in 2012, of Libby Garvey to the County Board.

For the next two years, Garvey led something of a lonely and frequently ridiculed rear-guard action against her fellow board Democrats and against the proposal, which continued inching forward despite spiraling cost estimates that eventually totaled $350 million.

But then, in the spring of 2014, County Board member Chris Zimmerman – perhaps the driving force behind the streetcar proposal – resigned to take a job with a policy group. The arrival of independent John Vihstadt on the County Board in the special election to fill Zimmerman’s seat delivered Garvey an ally throughout the summer and fall, and when Vihstadt won a full term in the November 2014 general election that year, Democratic board members Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes switched sides, voting to kill off the transit proposal. It had become too divisive, they said at the time.

The decision infuriated Fairfax County leaders, who saw the streetcar as a way for the county to promote economic development in Baileys Crossroads while requiring only a modest financial contribution to the overall cost of the project.

In killing off the streetcar, county leaders promised they would fast-track improvements to the bus network plying the corridor – the largest bus network in Virginia. But, county officials have acknowledged on multiple occasions, efforts failed to live up to promises.

Bob Cambridge, the largely unknown Republican candidate in the special election, said the proposal for a “trolley car” had been a manifestation of the group-think of an  arrogant, all-Democratic County Board in the pre-2014 era.

“With one party, I think we’re hobbled,” Cambridge said at the candidate forum.

During the debate over the streetcar proposal, transportation planners acknowledged that the system would not necessarily improve travel times. The project was viewed by many proponents as a spur to economic development along the Columbia Pike corridor and out to Skyline in Fairfax County.

A half-century ago, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had plans in place for a heavy-rail subway line running down Columbia Pike and points west.

That proposal was scrapped in order to create Blue Line service south from Arlington into Alexandria and southeastern Fairfax County.

WMATA’s current long-range planning again calls for a subway line down the Columbia Pike corridor, but where the perpetually cash-strapped transit system would find the funds to build and operate the line remains an open question.

But if the project moves forward, “I’m all for it,” Karantonis said.

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