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Arlington County Residents Divided Over Streetcars

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The debate about streetcars is reaching a fever pitch in Arlington, where newly elected county board member Libby Garvey says bus-rapid transit would accomplish all the goals of a streetcar line at 20 percent of the cost.

"In fact, it can do it better because when you do not have a dedicated lane, as on Columbia Pike, and there's an accident on the tracks or something happens in a lane of traffic, the whole streetcar system comes to a stop," says Garvey.

County board member Chris Zimmerman says the economics of a streetcar system are superior to a bus line.

"The impact, the real payment for these investments, is in the real estate, which is where we derive most of our revenue," says Zimmerman. "And the impact on the real estate is tremendous."

Supporters say real estate values will spike in the future, but current residents say today's taxpayers will bear an undue burden. Former Arlington County Democratic Committee chairman Peter Rousselot is now with a group known as Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. He says the plan is deeply flawed.

"One of the biggest flaws is that they can approve a multi-million dollar contract to construct the streetcar with no competitive bidding," says Rousselot.

The $250 million design includes 10 streetcars along Columbia Pike — a line that spans about 5 miles. Supporters say the lure of using a streetcar system will attract more riders than a traditional bus line, which they say has a more limited appeal.

"Everywhere you put in a streetcar line, you get an increase in ridership, and we are expecting a 40 percent increase in ridership if we can get the streetcar over buses of any kind," says Randy Swart, a spokesman for Streetcar Now.

County officials say the deal has already been done, and the streetcar line is on its way. But many residents and at least one elected official say it's time to derail the train before it costs taxpayers too much.

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