After 15 years of a Democratic-controlled County Board in Arlington, John Vihstadt, an Independent, has been throwing a few wrenches into the board’s plans. Most notably, Vihstadt has been a major voice of opposition to the Columbia Pike Streetcar along with fellow board member Democrat Libby Garvey. The streetcar has become the major issue between Vihstadt and his opponent, Democrat Alan Howze.
“The County Board, for a long time, was used to doing things their own way and without challenge or another voice from inside the boardroom,” said Vihstadt. “Now that I’m on the board, I’m able to ask questions and not just nod my head and provide constructive and forward looking ideas for change. I’m trying to be a positive and constructive change agent and I believe I’m making some headway.”
Vihstadt’s victory in a special election in April came as a shock to the Democratic County Board. While Vihstadt faces his same opponent, he says his time in office has given him the additional edge of experience.
“Now that I’m a six-month incumbent, I’m able to demonstrate and showcase my record: pointing out that I have approached issues in a balanced and fair manner,” said Vihstadt. “I have continued to push for my priorities in the campaign. Fighting against the streetcar, but advocating for other transportation, like bus improvements.”
Even as an incumbent, campaigning is tough, especially with the Democrats hoping to recapture their lost spot. While Vihstadt claimed to be energized and excited for the election, he also acknowledged that it can be exhausting.
“It’s taxing and exhilarating at the same time,” said Vihstadt. “I get a lot of energy from being out campaigning … but the biggest challenge has been finding enough time during the campaign to get some sleep.”
With so many overlapping events, Vihstadt also says it can be difficult trying to honor every commitment and invitation that comes through his office. That toll is offset by Vihstadt’s favorite part of the campaign: meeting new people and reconnecting with old acquaintances.
Vihstadt and his opponent have similar agendas with regards to education. For Vihstadt, whose two sons went through the Arlington public school system, the issue of public education has personal and economic implications.
“Maintaining strong public schools is probably the number one economic advantage that Arlington has other than location,” said Vihstadt. “Therefore its vital that we maintain or improve the strength of our public schools. We’re facing increased economic challenge. The District of Columbia has come roaring back, the Silver Line is taking people out towards Fairfax … Fairfax is more competitive than it used to be, so is the District. We’ve got to pick up our game … I have advocated for passage of the 2014 school bond. I worked successfully with my colleagues to free up additional bonding authority this year to provide for schools’ capacity funding.
Vihstadt opposes the streetcar, but emphasizes that this is largely because funds from that streetcar could be used to fund other transportation projects, particularly an overhaul of Alexandria’s bus system.
“There are so many different transportation funding pots,” said Vihstadt. “We can take a lot of that 500 million [dollars] sucked into that streetcar sink hole and put that into other transportation projects in Arlington.”
While many in favor of the streetcar see it as an extension of the mass transit system started with the Metro, Vihstadt dismissed the comparison and laid out three major differences between the Metro and the Columbia Pike Streetcar. The citizens of Arlington voted to approve the Metro where the streetcar is voted on by the County Board. The Metro connects two states and the District of Columbia, while the streetcar connects Fairfax and Arlington counties. Finally, Vihstadt has concerns with the streetcar operating in mixed traffic. Any obstacle the streetcar faced would create instant gridlock, a problem that a bus system would not suffer from.
With the citizens of Arlington being kept away from the streetcar vote and other projects, Vihstadt feels that much of the community has come to see him as a voice for their concerns.
“We’re excited, we’re energized,” said Vihstadt, “and we feel we have the momentum and message to go the distance.”