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Desired No More
Voters Abandon Streetcar in Arlington

Another streetcar bites the dust. The NYT reports on the dramatic reversal in Arlington, whose “progressive” transportation culture would have been a natural place for the project to take root. The voters, it seems, weren’t having it:

John Vihstadt, a streetcar critic and a subway commuter to his Washington law office, had just been elected to the Arlington County board. The campaign’s dominant issue was the planned system, with Mr. Vihstadt arguing that it would be too expensive and ineffective, compared with faster bus service. The vote was seen as a referendum on the project that had been planned since the 1990s and formally approved in 2006.

“At the end of the day,” Mr. Vihstadt said, “Arlington voters concluded the streetcar didn’t make sense from a transit or economic perspective, that it would cost too much and do too little. I was the vehicle for that sentiment.”

The piece also highlights the uncertain future of the DC streetcar, but it’s not just DC or Arlington. Atlanta and San Antonio, for example, have also run into streetcar problems. But despite this, as the NYT notes, several cities are still pushing ahead with plans to develop streetcars, and there still seems to be a fair amount of momentum behind the movement overall. In part, that’s because federal money has been behind it.

The funding still being devoted to these projects is misplaced, and not just because they have failed in different cities. Streetcars sit at the intersection of the green agenda, the new urbanist movement, and the nostalgia of wealthier city dwellers for a more picturesque era. They serve those who live in walkable, dense enclaves—but only a limited number of people want or can afford to live in such areas. Policy makers would do more to improve the lives of the middle class by prioritizing an agenda centered around telework, Google cars, and smart suburban development than one devoted to marginal priorities like streetcars for the wealthy.

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  • jeburke

    Street cars existed in the first place because horses could pull a much larger wagon carrying more passengers if it rolled on iron or steel rails. The trailblazing technology of the 1830s! For about the first 50 years of the 20th century, they survived in their electrified version until municipalities realized that buses were cheaper and more flexible. It’s interesting that the horse-drawn cars were still in service many decades into the electric age, as this 1917 photo in New York shows.

    • Andrew Allison had a lot to do with the demise of streetcars which in (and only in) dense urban environments are still an effective form of transportation ( In relatively low-density urban areas like Arlington, they are just money sinks (the San Jose light rail system is a spectacular example).

      • Curious Mayhem

        Exactly. Buses are optimal in part because they share the same infrastructure as cars.

        • Andrew Allison

          Streetcars/Light Rail are optimal in densely populated cities because they don’t share their infrastructure with cars, and thus don’t have to deal with traffic congestion. They’re use in Europe is growing for this reason (

    • Corlyss

      “they survived in their electrified version until municipalities realized that buses were cheaper and more flexible.”

      Actually, they lasted until the post-war auto companies and oil companies convinced municipalities to decommission them and tear up the rails in favor of auto traffic to accommodate the suburbs, not the city dwellers that were the original target for their development in the first place.

      • f1b0nacc1

        I used to work right there!…pity that was so long ago…

        • Corlyss

          Where???? We might have passed on the street! I lived there from 1955 to 2003.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I lived in Bethesda, but worked in DC (various bandits) from 1986-2000. Most of the time I was in either Alexandria or Arlington…did quite a bit of work several 3 letter agencies.
            Ah, the good old days…not always so good, actually…

      • Curious Mayhem

        Modern urban buses started in the late 1950s precisely to replace street cars and avoid building any more subway tunnels. They remain the best solution for urban mass transit.

  • DecimusBrutus

    The election of Vihstadt, a Republican running as an independent, forced two “progressive” Democrats who supported the street car to announce that they would not run for re-election. The streetcar was the brainchild of a County Staff immersed in the ideas implanted from their urban planning courses and a former Board member who insisted on spending hours at county board meetings excoriating Republicans. There never was majority support for the streetcar but the Board and the Staff were determined to force it down the throats of the voters. The election was about more than the streetcar; it was about a one party dominated County Government that had become divorced from the community and arrogant in its ways. It was an example of what happens when the residents of one of the most liberal areas in the country are taxed to finance the expensive ideology of today’s urban liberals and just won’t take it anymore. Not surprisingly, the County Manger just announced her retirement.

    • Curious Mayhem

      I grew up near DC and continue to watch how the area has turned into a gold-plated and increasingly unaffordable playground for the wealthy “progressive” elite. It’s nothing like 30 or 50 years ago. The middle class is increasingly priced out by the denizens of the highest per-capita income and wealth area of the country — all leeching off government, of course. The old middle class civil service ethos is largely gone. Now we have lobbyists, lawyers, media, think tanks, all technically private, but not really. Just drive around the Beltway and look at the car dealerships.

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