Hearing from the People on Streetcars

Hearing from the People on Streetcars

Voters will have indirect say on streetcars, even without referendum.

Supporters of a plan to build a streetcar line along Columbia Pike are divided over the wisdom of whether or not voters should weigh in on the issue. But even if voters won't be able to cast a direct ballot on the issue, they will be able to send an indirect signal when they select a candidate for Arlington County Board.

Back in May, several prominent elected officials called for a referendum, including Del. Patrick Hope (D-47), Treasurer Frank O'Leary and Commissioner of Revenue Ingrid Morroy. Last week, those hopes were dashed when a majority of County Board members said they opposed putting the streetcar issue on the ballot. County Board Chairman Jay Fissette said the county would not be seeking legislative approval for an advisory ballot, adding that he opposed financing the project through taxes on homeowners that would prompt a bond referendum.

"I am committed to streetcars," said Fisette during a County Board meeting this week. "But not at any cost."

Hope said he agreed with County Board members that an advisory ballot — essentially an nonbonding poll of county residents — would not be the best course of action. But he said he disagreed with board members that a bond referendum should be avoided at all costs. Hope said he would have liked to have seen board members put a token dollar amount on the ballot as a bond referendum. That way voters could express their opinion on the issue in a way that would give elected officials an indication of which way the wind is blowing in the county.

"I still believe that the streetcar is an important investment," said Hope. "But I also think that this is one of those situations that's controversial enough that we ought to let the voters decide whether we go forward or not."

EVEN IF THE VOTERS will not have a direct ballot question on the streetcar issue, they will be indirectly voting on the issue this November when they choose a candidate for the County Board. Incumbent County Board member John Vihstadt won a special election earlier this year after basing his campaign largely against the streetcar system as wasteful spending. This November, he will once again face Democrat Alan Howze, who supporters the streetcar. Like Hope, Howze would have liked to have seen the County Board approve some amount of money for a general obligation bond to get the issue on the ballot before voters.

"I recognize that there are differences of opinion on this between me and some of the board members, and that's OK," said Howze. "I think a strong public vote in support of the streetcar would be the best way to move the project forward. I continue to feel that way, and nothing has swayed me from that opinion."

The issue of the streetcar has become one of the most divisive political issues in Arlington in generations. Democrats are divided on the issue, with County Board member Libby Garvey leading the opposition. Former Democratic Party chairman Peter Rousselot is also a leading opponent. He and other opponents formed a group known as Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, a group that's now preparing for yet another campaign against the streetcar system.

"Three members of the County Board have made it clear that there isn't going to be a referendum, and therefore the closest thing to a referendum is the County Board election between John Vihstadt and Alan Howze," said Rousselot. "The voters can weigh in again this November just like they did in April on that subject."