When federal officials denied Arlington County's request for a Small Starts grant, advocates for the streetcar project went back to the drawing board. Now the three Arlington County Board members who support the $300 million project say they will forgo federal funds altogether, using state money set aside for transportation. Last weekend, the County Board approved a $3.2 billion capital-improvement plan that includes $1.1 billion for Metro and transportation.
"Fixed rail is more comfortable. It's more accessible. It's more environmentally friendly," said County Board member Jay Fisette. "And it will ease congestion along this corridor."
Although this is the fifth time the streetcar has appeared as part of a capital-spending plan, it's the first time a spending plan is starting to emerge about how Arlington will pay for the project. Last week, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne sent leaders in Arlington and Fairfax a letter announcing he would help the two jurisdictions apply for an additional $65 million in state grants.
"Our first initial review looks like this is a good project supported by facts," said Layne. "I'm sure people will offer different opinions as we go through the public process."
Critics disagree that the plan would benefit economic development as much as supporters say it would, pointing to research by the Ford Foundation that show enhanced bus service offers more bang for the buck. Former Republican turned independent John Vihstadt has been elected to the County Board as a second vote against the project; Democrat Libby Garvey is no longer the lone dissenting voice. Vihstadt and Garvey reiterated their opposition to the project during Saturday's meeting.
"I cannot vote for a CIP whose single biggest legacy from a funding share standpoint will be a financial and operational albatross for decades to come," said Vihstadt.
Despite last weekend's vote, critics still hope to derail the streetcar at the ballot box. This November, Vihstadt will face Democrat Alan Howze, who supports the project. And then next year, two of the streetcar supporters will be on the ballot, an opportunity for opponents to unseat supporters if they can muster the votes.