A proposal to build a trolley car system on Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia continues to provoke strong reactions from residents. The County Board estimates it will cost between $214 million and $261 million to build and between $19.5 million and $25 million to operate and maintain.
According to advocates, the Pike Transit proposal will relieve area congestion, spur economic activity and promote environmental sustainability.
However, residents from all sides of the political spectrum appear to disagree with the County Board. Arlington Yupette says the Pike Transit plans are “elitist” and intended to drive out middle class and working class residents by driving up rents. The end result: the “Clarendonization” of South Arlington. Some point to the need for resources to be directed to the overcrowding in county schools. And still others highlight the high likelihood of such projects becoming boondoggles.
Given the anecdotal lack of popular support expressed by area residents, why are officials persisting? Public finance holds a key. Should the county go ahead and commit to build a rail line here is how it will be financed. Thirty percent of funds will come from the New Starts/Small Starts federal grant program and 14 percent from the state of Virginia. The remainder is to be provided by Arlington and Fairfax Counties.
Is this fiscal illusion at play? The Small Starts Program will provide up to $75 million if the local government provides a match. County Board officials are confident that Arlington and Fairfax can foot $140 million (Arlington will pay 80 percent of that) with the state of Virginia kicking in a further $35 million. Because a chunk of the cost of building the rail line can be externalized, that is, passed on to state and federal taxpayers, it looks like a bargain…at least for a fleeting moment. It’s still about $170 million dollars more than what it would cost to add more buses.
And there are more complications that arise from mingling federal, state and local dollars as noted by the Sun-Gazette. Virginia is a right to work state. Are union employees required to work on the rail line since the project will receive federal dollars? If yes then the increased labor costs will make the project even more costly to the county. (Lieutenant Governor Bolling believes Virginia state law trumps federal law in the matter.)
While new estimates continue to push the costs higher, at least one Arlington County Board member is undeterred by fiscal considerations, “This is a project that has the most potential to help us achieve our environmental goals and livability goals. We think it will have a very high return.”
That is, the costs of building the streetcar line are concrete, and the returns are mired in the counterfactual.