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A Capital Debate on Streetcars

Controversy over streetcar to dominate discussion of capital improvement plan.

Members of the Arlington County Board are preparing for weeks of heated debate about the streetcar proposal on Columbia Pike, a project that continues to increase in price and opposition. Although the project has enjoyed support from previous elected officials, the board's two newest members are raising new questions about where the money comes from and how it's spent. Even if they are not successful in killing the project this year, they are hoping that the debate that emerges from this year's capital improvement plan will lead to a sea change by the time construction costs begin several years from now.

"We'll have a different board by then," said County Board member Libby Garvey, one of the chief opponents of the project. "We'll have a new board that, on this issue, better represents what the public wants."

Voters will have the final say when they head to the polls this year and next year, elections that will have consequences for the project. The first election will be this November, a rematch of incumbent independent John Vihstadt and Democratic challenger Alan Howze. The two faced off in a special election earlier this year that featured an extended debate about the streetcar. Vihstadt opposed the project and won a decisive victory.

"I would like to see the CIP to be amended to be stripped of all streetcar funding," said Vihstadt. "A modified form of bus-rapid transit can be implemented much more cheaply and much more quickly with much more regional connectivity and less disruption and comparable economic development to a streetcar."

THE COUNTY BOARD is set to hold a work session about the streetcar system on June 18, and then pass a final 10-year spending plan in July 19. Although Garvey and Vihstadt are opposed to the streetcar, a three-vote majority is in favor of the system. County Board Chairman Jay Fisette says he will be making the case for approving the capital-spending plan for the streetcar system — most of which he says would come from federal and state money.

"We look at the growth in that area, and it's not something that can be handled with buses alone," said Fisette. "The streetcar has a higher capacity, and it has a much more significant return on investment — more than three times the most enhanced bus you could possibly run."

Vihstadt and Garvey may not have a majority vote, but they plan on using the capital-improvement process to raise questions about the streetcar system and gets some facts on the record. This week, they sent a series of questions to county staff about the proposal. They want to know what other projects could be funded with the money currently earmarked for streetcars. They also want to know if advertising is going to be allowed on the superstops that will service streetcars and buses and how the warranty will handle faulty heating elements and leaking roofs.

"Were the repairs to these features and other remediated components covered under warranty at no cost to the county?" asked Vihstadt. "If not, why not?"

  • Columbia Pike Streetcar Funding Proposal
  • Fiscal Year 2015: $7.8 million
  • Fiscal Year 2016: $7 million
  • Fiscal Year 2017: $7.3 million
  • Fiscal Year 2018: 11.1 million
  • Fiscal Year 2019: $95.1 million
  • Fiscal Year 2020: $114.4 million
  • Fiscal Year 2021: 43.9 million

EVEN IF County Board members end up approving a capital spending plan that includes funding for the streetcar, the major spending will not start until construction begins in fiscal years 2019. That means several elections will have taken place before that time, including next year when the seats currently held by Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes will be on the ballot. That means several more campaign cycles could be dominated by the issue of the streetcar, which has become increasingly divisive in Arlington politics.

"I think John is going to win again in November. It will be tight, but he will win," said Garvey. "And then I think we will have a very good anti-streetcar candidate the next year."

Garvey declined to say who that candidate might be, although she added that several people are already looking at the possibility of campaigning for County Board against the streetcar. That means by the time the next capital improvement plan is passed, the system will either be on track or find itself derailed.

"We have known from the beginning why we've done it and I don't think we've done the best job explaining it and giving our rationale for the streetcar," said Fisette. "But there's nothing I have heard that has changed my view that this is still a wise investment."