When voters in the 48th House District head to the polls on Aug. 19 to select a candidate in a special election to replace longtime Del. Bob Brink (D-48), the Columbia Pike Streetcar proposal will once again be on the ballot. Earlier this year, independent candidate John Vihstadt staged an upset when he was able to beat Democrat Alan Howze in a special election for the County Board based on a campaign against the streetcar. Now Republican Dave Foster hopes use the same playbook to beat Democrat Rip Sullivan in the special election for the House of Delegates.
"I believe it's a very ill-advised, overpriced and unaffordable option for Arlington and for Fairfax," said
Foster, who was first elected to the Arlington School Board in 1999 and then reelected in 2003, said, "There is intense public concern about it, and I think it would be prudent for us to authorize Arlington to have a referendum on it."
When asked about his position on the streetcar, Sullivan didn't have much to say.
"My position is that I'm going home to bed. The campaign starts tomorrow. I'm not going to get into issues tonight," Sullivan said after securing the Democratic nomination Sunday night. "It's not that I don't have a position but I'm not interested in talking about it tonight. I'm going to go home and go to bed."
THE STREETCAR has become the hottest issue in Arlington politics, a polarizing force that has become a dividing line at the ballot box. Democrat Libby Garvey won a special election in 2012, a campaign that featured her coming out against the proposal after securing the Democratic nomination. In the special election this year, she supported Vihstadt instead of Howse — leading to tensions between her and the Arlington County Democratic Committee culminating in her resignation from the executive committee.
"I must put the good of the people of Arlington above what ACDC might want," said Garvey at the time.
Now those tensions will be playing out yet again, as the issue of the streetcar takes center stage in the special election for House of Delegates. A majority of County Board members say they are not interested in putting the issue before voters as part of a bond referendum, largely because they plan to finance the proposal without using money from residential property taxpayers. Howze, who will once again face Vihstadt this fall, says he disagrees with that approach.
"I think a referendum is still an appropriate way to let voters have their say on a significant capital project in the community," said Howze. "That's consistent with how we have done other large capital projects in Arlington."
CONSIDERING THE opposition to funding the streetcar proposal using a bond referendum, the only other way to get the issue directly before Arlington voters would be for a member of the General Assembly to introduce a bill giving the county authority to conduct an advisory ballot. Because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, localities need permission to conduct these kinds of elections.
"At this time I have zero interest in putting in a bill for a referendum," said Del. Patrick Hope (D-
47). "Look I've been down there for five years, and I have never seen a referendum come to the floor for a vote. I think this is a decision that should be made at the local level."