Analysis: Demise of Columbia Pike streetcar now possible, but not imminent

Do odds now favor cancellation of the Columbia Pike streetcar project? That’s the hope of critics and the fear of supporters, but the question remains an unresolved one, and may stay that way for a while.

The re-election earlier this month of anti-streetcar County Board member John Vihstadt puts opponents of the $350 million project within striking distance of a County Board majority, if they can win at least one of the two board seats on the ballot next November – or if they can convince one or more of the pro-streetcar threesome to switch sides.

“The next several months will be important,” said Tim Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association and a frequent critic of county spending priorities. “The voters have made their opinions known, loudly and clearly. The question is whether the three members of the County Board who support the Columbia Pike streetcar will listen.”

Wise threw out a series of questions, in largely chronological order, in evaluating where the issue goes from here:

“What will the Democratic nominating process look like next spring? Will there be a Democratic primary? Will a Democratic candidate who is opposed to the streetcar emerge from that primary? Who will emerge to oppose those Democrats? Will Democrats renominate [anti-streetcar board member] Libby Garvey [in 2016]? Will Dels. Patrick Hope or Rip Sullivan introduce a bill in the 2015 General Assembly that would enable Arlington County citizens to voice their opinions in a referendum?”

A few stabs at answers, based on where things stand now:

  • Democrats will have to decide in early 2015 whether to hold a state-run primary or a party-run caucus to select County Board nominees. assuming more than two candidates run for the two seats on the ballot. A primary would take place in June; a caucus could take place anytime during the spring.
  • The possibility exists that Hynes and/or Tejada would not seek a new term. If they do run, plenty of theories are being bandied about as to candidates who might take them on in a Democratic nomination process.
  • It’s hard to imagine an anti-streetcar candidate winning the nomination of a political party that, like the Democratic Committee, is on record supporting the streetcar. But as 2014 has proved, anything is possible in such a tempestuous political environment.
  • One presumes anti-streetcar board members Vihstadt and Garvey, and their supporters, are casting about for a viable candidate, or candidates, for the 2015 general election.
  • Garvey’s seat does not come before voters again until 2016, but it seems unlikely that Democrats would give her a free ride to the Democratic nomination if she opted to seek it. Garvey earlier this year resigned from the Arlington County Democratic Committee, which was preparing to expel her for her support of Vihstadt against Alan Howze. But Garvey says she remains a Democrat, and party chairman Kip Malinosky has held the door open, a crack, for the potential of her eventual return into the fold.
  • During the summer campaign for the House of Delegates seat vacated by Bob Brink, Sullivan promised to introduce legislation in the 2015 General Assembly allowing Arlington to hold a referendum on the streetcar. (Some Virginia localities already have the power to hold advisory referendums, but Arlington does not.) The chances that such a measure would get out of the legislature and onto the desk of Gov. McAuliffe are iffy at best; if it did, one wonders whether McAuliffe would sign it. But even if it got out of Richmond intact, the measure likely would merely allow Arlington officials to hold a referendum, not require them to.
  • Barring a conversion on the road to Damascus – or perhaps on the road to Pentagon City, where the proposed streetcar is slated to connect with Metro – it seems unlikely that County Board members Jay Fisette, Walter Tejada or Mary Hynes could be convinced to switch to the opposition. Tejada and Hynes, who if they run again will face the electorate next year, have their own reasons for supporting the project: Tejada sees the streetcar as a way to enhance economic development on Columbia Pike and give developers that extra density to retain existing levels of affordable housing. Hynes, who represents Arlington on the board of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, sees the streetcar plan as a cornerstone of regional transit planning.

In the days following Vihstadt’s re-election victory, the Coalition for Smarter Growth – which supports the streetcar – said the election shouldn’t be taken as a de-facto referendum on the project.

“We are confident that the streetcar will continue to stand up to scrutiny,” the organization said.

Its executive director, Stewart Schwartz, said he couldn’t get into the politics of the matter because he worked for a non-profit that isn’t allowed to take political stances. But he said the organization would “join with Arlingtonians in making a substantive case for this as a critical long-term economic-development and transportation investment.”

But another streetcar supporter is not so sure the case can be made.

Lowell Feld, who oversees the left-leaning political blog Blue Virginia, opined that the streetcar’s viability was one of the big losers to come out of the Nov. 4 election.

“It’s not looking good for this project,” Feld wrote the day after the results were tallied. “If yesterday wasn’t a message sent by voters (who massively split their votes – for Warner, Beyer . . . and Vihstadt), I’m not sure what was.”

Feld went on to savage the Arlington Democratic leadership, the Howze campaign and the pro-streetcar forces for allowing others to define the election.

“Does anyone in the Arlington Democratic establishment have any clue why that happened or what to do about it?” he asked.

Even those who’d never before heard of Lowell Feld or Blue Virginia found themselves in agreement with the sentiments.

“His rant is right on track,” said one longtime resident and reliable Democratic voter who nonetheless supported Vihstadt in April and November.

“I’m really tired of the arrogance of the Arlington Democrats,” the voter said.

Clearly, it’s not the message the county’s dominant political party wants to hear. But it’s one that doesn’t appear to be going away soon.

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