When people make requests of government, they often think of the available funding as being a bottomless pit from which politicians can pull endless amounts of money. Sadly, far too many politicians think in those terms, as well (see Congress). The truth is rather more disappointing, as funding is really more of a zero-sum game. If you get funding for your project, someone else will have to make a sacrifice: either they forfeit their own project or there’s a tax increase on someone, perhaps everyone.
Let’s use a local example to illustrate. Given that transportation funding is finite, how would Del Ray best be served: with a trolley like Old Town’s or with a big uptick in spending on traffic calming/pedestrian improvement projects? Granted, this isn’t a perfect comparison. The trolley, which will also serve Arlandria, has funding set aside, but nobody seems to want to operate it. The city earmarked money for traffic calming and pedestrian safety that was generated by Potomac Yard’s developers, but the amount won’t even pay for a single traffic light. Del Ray’s best hope for traffic calming comes from the recent restoration of such funding under the city’s Complete Streets program, but this small pile of cash has to be shared throughout the city.
So, let’s do a thought experiment: suppose the citizens and business operators in Del Ray had a clear-cut choice: they can have the trolleys, assuming the city finds an operator or DASH takes up the slack; or they can have lots of traffic calming, crosswalk improvements and bike lanes. To keep it simple, let’s pretend that the amount of funding available for both is the same. That’s highly dubious, but work with me here. Which one should Del Ray opt for? And no, you can’t have half a trolley or three-quarters of a speed hump. It’s a zero-sum game.
To make this a rational choice, we have to ask who benefits the most from these two examples. The trolley, which is slated to run primarily on the weekends, might benefit Del Ray restaurants and bars by bringing in patrons from further afield than the immediate area. The route ties in with King Street-Old Town Metro and Braddock Road Metro, theoretically making the area more attractive to tourists.
Unfortunately, whereas Old Town is listed in several travel guides such as Frommer’s, Del Ray is not. If tourists don’t know about a place, they won’t show up. Plus, they may not be all that interested. Old Town is a rarity, since few concentrations of 18th century architecture remain in the United States. Livable, interesting communities like Del Ray are growing in number, though, thanks to Americans’ rediscovery of their intown neighborhoods.
We can actually gauge tourist potential by the degree of interest from hotel operators. Old Town has lots of hotels, with more on the horizon. That’s a source of dismay for some in the Old Town Civic Association. So far, no major hotel chains have tried to plop a big hotel in Del Ray, which the residents might not be keen on, anyway. Bottom line: the Arlandria/Del Ray trolley won’t yield a tourist boom, but it might encourage more patrons to visit Del Ray from elsewhere in the metro area. Time will tell if those patrons appear in significant numbers.
So who benefits from traffic calming and pedestrian safety upgrades? Well, pretty much everyone would, except for cut-through commuters. By definition, traffic calming slows the cars down. If you live in Fairfax County or Maryland and think of Del Ray as a handy bypass for Route 1, a slower journey will not be pleasing. However, kids going to school bus stops, residents who switch from their cars to bikes for short trips, commuters who walk to stops for Alexandria’s DASH bus, and patrons of local businesses (since parking can be tricky in the area) would probably all be happier if they no longer had to play a real-world version of Frogger.
So, your zero-sum choice is this: transit that may modestly increase patronage at local business; or pedestrian improvements and traffic calming that will protect local residents and patrons, but slow regional car commuters. Which do you choose?