Arlington: Sparring over Issues on Streetcar Proposal

Arlington: Sparring over Issues on Streetcar Proposal

Democrat Alan Howze issued a harsh attack against incumbent County Board member John Vihstadt last week, accusing him of using opposition to the proposed $333 million streetcar proposal on Columbia Pike as a "wedge issue" to score "political points" in a way that is "dividing our community." All of these attacks came before Howze outlined a five-point plan to improve the controversial project.

"My opponent is only interested in using the streetcar to drive his political agenda," Howze concludes. "It is time to lead Arlington, not divide it."

Vihstadt says the Howze attack is itself an attempt to divide the community.

"Rather than hurling charges of divisiveness, my opponent's time might be better spent working to convince the three county board members who have endorsed him and likewise support the streetcar but who oppose a public referendum to allow this issue to be put to a vote," Vihstadt responded. "What are they scared of? Losing, of course."

THE COLUMBIA PIKE streetcar has been increasingly divisive over the past few years as opposition to the project has steadily grown and organized. The last two special elections for County Board have seen Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt elected to office on a platform of opposing the project, which they say is too expensive and unworkable for the pike. Now opponents of the project, who support enhanced service some people call bus-rapid transit, say the suggestions Howze has proposed are well intentioned but unnecessary.

"Most of his proposals are efforts to basically put lipstick on a pig," said Peter Rousselot, founder of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. "It will be a more attractive pig and a more alluring pig with the lipstick, but it's still a pig."

Supporters of streetcar say the streetcar is necessary to generate economic development on Columbia Pike.

"If that pig is the only thing that's going to feed your family, put lipstick on it or don't put lipstick on it," said John Snyder, founder of Streetcar Now. "The more important issue is that if you don't do the streetcar then we've got a lot more nonrenewable energy going out of tailpipes into people's lungs."

THE HOWZE PROPOSALS are a mix of suggestions that respond to criticisms that are commonplace among businesses and residents who live up and down Columbia Pike. Some of them are about the potential chaos created by construction while others address a perception among supporters that the project is taking too long. Some of the streetcar supporters believe the suggestions go too far. One of the proposals, for example, would be to examine the feasibility of using streetcars that can run without wires for sections of the line.

"Now all of a sudden because those wires power a streetcar, they are terrible and ugly and this is horrible, but for the previous 50 years they were just fine," said Snyder. "If it's just as reliable and the same cost or not considerably more, then sure consider it."

Opponents say putting some of the streetcar wires underground is likely to substantially increase the price of the project, which has almost tripled already from the original estimate of $120 million to $333 million. Another Howze proposal that is likely to add cost to the project is to require that 100 percent of the energy to power the system come from renewable energy sources.

"Currently, the power supply for the streetcar is the coal-fired electricity supplied by Dominion, which is a very dirty solution," said Rousselot. "There's a better environmental solution with bus-rapid transit."