Can we really afford a Streetcar system right now given the looming capacity challenges for our school system, projected budget shortfall, etc?
YES! First of all, the local funding sources that will be used to fund the Streetcars cannot be used for building schools. The Columbia Pike Streetcar is expected to be built with a combination of State Grant money (which can only be spent on transportation projects), Federal “Small Starts” grant money (which can only be spent the transit project that applied for it) and money from the County’s Transportation Capital Fund (which is funded by a tax on commercial real estate and which can only be spent on transportation projects). The Crystal City Streetcar is expected to be built primarily with funds from the Tax Increment Financing area. These funds are a portion of the real estate taxes collected due to increased property values in Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard that have resulted from the County’s earlier investments in these areas. These funds can only be used for infrastructure within the TIF area - street improvements, transit improvements and open space.
Second, our transportation investments are just that - investments. They pay back the money that we put into them and much, much more due to the increased property values associated with Transit Oriented Development. Were in not for the transportation investments we have made in the past, Arlington would not have the robust tax base it currently enjoys which allow us to afford the cultural and recreational amenities that make Arlington such a desirable place to live. The question should not be “Can we afford Streetcars?” it should be “Can we afford NOT to invest in Streetcars?”
How can we even be sure how much the Streetcars are going to cost? I heard the estimate for the Columbia Pike Streetcar has already risen by $100 million!
It’s unfair to directly compare the estimate from the 2007 to the current estimate as they are really measuring wildly different things:
- The 2007 estimate was in 2007 dollars, we’ve had five years of inflation since then, plus FTA rules requires escalating the contingency 3% through the midpoint of construction (FY2015).
- The 2007 estimate included 8% of the project cost in contingency funds. The 2011 estimate includes 18% due to rules required to submit for FTA funding.
- The new estimate is for a somewhat longer route than the 2007 estimate (due primarily to placement of the maintenance yard) and also include two additional streetcar vehicles and a larger maintenance facility.
- With further study a few areas have been uncovered that will legitimately cost more than expected - the Columbia Pike bridge over Four Mile Run will require structural reinforcement, a portion of Jefferson Street will require regrading and more right of way will need to be acquired than previously thought.