Should voters consider the fate of the controversial $310 million streetcar on Columbia Pike?
That's what two candidates are proposing, although the path from their idea to the ballot box remains unclear, and the idea has resistance among people who support the initiative. The debate comes at a time when County Manager Barbara Donnellan prepares to propose her capital improvement program for fiscal years 2015 to 2024, a 10-year spending plan that will include the first major round of funding for the Columbia Pike Streetcar.
"This issue has clearly divided the Arlington community," said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47), one of 10 Democrats in a primary for Congress. "It's time to move forward and have a public referendum to settle this issue."
Last week, Hope and Democrat Alan Howze outlined a proposal for voters to consider the issue. The proposal follows a special election in which Howze supported the streetcar initiative in a special election and lost to independent candidate John Vihstadt, a former Republican who campaigned against the proposal. Vihstadt's victory follows the 2012 special election in which Democrat Libby Garvey won after expressing her opposition to the proposal.
"I am pleased to see that Alan Howze now agrees that Arlington taxpayers should have a voice regarding the County Board's misguided proposal to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to install streetcars in Arlington," said Vihstadt. "I regret that Mr. Howze still believes that streetcars are a good investment for Arlington."
THE PROPOSAL might now amount to nothing more than a talking point, though, because the path from idea to referendum remains unclear. One potential way for the item to be presented to voters would be for the County Board to approve a general bond referendum, essentially asking voters to approve borrowing money to finance the initiative. The problem with that is that the current capital improvement program includes language about funding the streetcar using the commercial real estate tax. That means having voters consider a bond referendum would involve a change in the strategy of financing, one that streetcar supporters oppose because they say it would put the intuitive in competition with money that could be used for education or other county priorities.
"The reason why the streetcar has not been built yet is because we have been looking for alternative funding," said John Snyder, chairman of Streetcar Now. " And now you're saying, no I've got to go back to traditional funding, which everyone has already decided we are not going to use, and pretend that we are going to use it so that everyone can go vote against it."
The other way the streetcar system could be considered by voters is an advisory ballot. But that would require an act of the General Assembly, which would need to approve giving Arlington the ability to have county voters consider the issue. Then the County Board would need a majority of members to approve putting the item on the ballot. Howze said he would like to see County Board members consider putting the issue before voters, which he said would be a way to lend some credibility to a process that's been tarnished by the results of two consecutive special elections.
"I heard the concerns expressed by voters in the recent special election, and we can put the streetcar debate to rest and ensure public confidence by allowing a referendum vote," said Howze. "As we have done with Metro, schools, the Water Pollution Control plant and other important community investments, we should give voters the final decision through a public referendum vote."
THE CURRENT capital improvement program was approved two years ago, when county officials planned to raise about $70 million from the commercial real estate tax. But that was when county officials estimated that the project would cost $250 million, about $60 million of which would come from the federal government. Since that time, the Federal Transit Administration has concluded that the project is likely to cost $310 million and federal officials declined to fund it under the Small Starts program.
"What's been missing from this discussion is where the money would come from," said Peter Rousselot, founder of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. "They've never settled on where the money is coming from to pay for this."
That's why many people — supporters and opponents — are eagerly anticipating the county manager's proposed capital improvement plan, which she is expected to deliver May 13. That will open the door to an extended debate about a number of funding proposals, although the $310 streetcar initiative will be one of the hottest debates this summer. A final vote is scheduled for July 24. Garvey and Vihstadt have already called for the capital improvement program to avoid including any financing for the streetcar initiative.
"If the board wants to have a referendum on the streetcar, it seems to me that we could find a way to do it," said Garvey. "But my preference is I would like to see the board come to its senses and decide we're not going to do this."
Two Ways to Get on the Ballot
- Borrowing Money: One way for the streetcar initiative to be before voters is for the County Board to approve a general obligation bond to finance part of the $310 million project. That would require a change in the funding plan, though, because the current capital improvement plan includes language about financing the project through revenue obligation bonds, which do not require the approval of voters.
- Advisory Ballot: Another way for the streetcar to be before voters is for the County Board to approve an advisory ballot. This would first require the General Assembly to allow Arlington to put it on the ballot, which means the earliest it could happen would be next year. After receiving permission from legislators, members of the County Board would need to approve that the issue appears on the ballot.