After the failed streetcar program, the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization is working to bring the community together to find common ground in a new transportation plan.
By Lani Furbank
Columbia Pike is often described as Arlington’s Main Street. It’s a busy commuting route to many who live in Arlington and work in D.C., but to the thousands of residents who call the Pike home (17 percent of Arlington’s population), it’s a vibrant community with burgeoning dining, retail and residential scenes.
The Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, a public-private partnership, wants to capitalize on the momentum it has seen over the past decades to carry out its vision of the Pike as “Arlington’s oldest and newest Main Street.”
Developed in the early 1900s, the thoroughfare stretches more than 3 miles across Arlington. Today, it is the busiest bus transit corridor in Virginia, with 600 bus trips carrying more than 17,000 passengers each weekday. Considering this heavy transit presence, CPRO’s challenge is to strike a balance between the needs of the commuters and the needs of the community.
John Murphy, the president of CPRO’s board of directors, has been on the board for 12 years. As a business owner and a resident of the Pike, he is heavily invested in the success of the neighborhood. “It’s my community, it’s where my business is, it’s where my home is,” he says.
That’s why he was thrilled about the idea of Arlington County investing millions in the proposed streetcar program. In November 2014, when the board voted to cancel the program because of discord and political divisions that were distracting the community from other pressing issues, Murphy was left wondering what the next move would be. “This community and the people up and down the Pike are still reeling from the controversy and the investment that was promised and not made,” he says.
Since then, CPRO has continued its work to improve amenities and strengthen the sense of community along the Pike. Murphy says, “One of our reasons to exist is to facilitate events up and down the Pike to knit our community closer together [and] provide buzz.” Throughout the year, CPRO organizes public events like home shows, outdoor movies, gallery showings and the annual Columbia Pike Blues Festival. The group also manages the neighborhood farmers market and collaborates with the local community centers to promote creative and diverse programming.
But CPRO is interested in doing more for the community than providing entertainment and attractions. Murphy says its main role lies in informing residents and reconciling the myriad interests throughout the community.
Right now, that means playing an active role in the county’s deliberations about transit improvements for Columbia Pike over the next 10 years.
Cecilia Cassidy, the organization’s interim executive director and seasoned veteran in the world of public-private partnerships, says CPRO wants to help the community find a path forward with a transportation solution that can meet the needs of both the residents and the commuters on the Pike. “It’s really our job to bring people together to get to yes,” she says.
The Arlington Department of Transportation is working to get to “yes” as well. Dennis Leach, the director of transportation, understands the importance of fast, effective and reliable public transportation. “Providing high-quality service connecting people to where they want to go I think strengthens the potential of the corridor,” he says.
The department has undertaken a 10-year transit development plan to evaluate the needs of the county and to set recommendations, in collaboration with WMATA, to improve surface transit, specifically in busy corridors like Columbia Pike.
Among these recommendations is the Pike Line, which would extend from Skyline in Fairfax County down the length of Columbia Pike and connect to Pentagon City, Crystal City, Potomac Yard and even potentially Alexandria. “We heard a lot of comments about providing a more seamless connection between these various transit districts,” Leach says. “[The Pike Line] is the service that connects the corridors together and provides a very highly reliable, frequent service where people don’t even really need a schedule.”
In addition, they are proposing more one-seat ride lines, meaning no transfers, to take commuters to Federal Triangle and Navy Yard and express service for some of the routes coming from Annandale to reduce congestion on the Pike.
For several months, the county solicited input from citizens and businesses, and CPRO offered its advice based on the needs of the community.
“We want to keep an eye on the capacity,” Murphy says. “Ultimately, will it be able to handle the increase in population up and down the Pike?” And more importantly, “Will it be attractive enough to accommodate people who might otherwise drive?”
Leach says that the main concern from Arlington residents was frequent, reliable and convenient transportation. Pike residents had some additional requests. “It’s not just about the commute,” Leach says. “It really is about providing connections for people that may work off hours or nontraditional hours; it’s about making trips outside of work for recreational purposes or shopping. It’s more of a lifestyle thing.” Leach says that filling the gaps of evening and weekend service, as well as augmenting service within Arlington, is a priority.
The board is poised to vote on the transit development plan recommendations, which include technological improvements like transit signal priority (optimizing transit signals to hold green lights for buses) and off-vehicle fare collection (to speed up the boarding process).
If the recommendations are approved this month by the Arlington board and WMATA, service changes could begin as early as July 2017. Capital investments such as new buses or signals would follow shortly after.
Though these upgrades are at least a year off, the county is currently moving forward with facility investments such as improvements to platforms and real-time arrival information along Columbia Pike. The Crystal City Potomac Yard Transitway, which opened in April, is an example of what’s in store for the whole corridor.
Whatever transportation plans the county has in the works, CPRO has one request: “Make it as good as you can make it,” Murphy says. “Make it work, make it attractive, make it meet the needs of both commuters and residents.”