Arlington County on Tuesday abruptly canceled two long-planned streetcar projects that had been hailed by smart-growth advocates as catalysts for development but stirred bitter opposition among residents newly skeptical of government projects.
Despite solid backing from developers, leaders of neighboring Fairfax County and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), the plan to launch streetcars along Columbia Pike and in Crystal City became toxic in Arlington, where elected officials pride themselves on progressive urban planning as well as on building polite consensus.
The streetcars figured prominently in proposals to bring new housing and retail and office space to struggling neighborhoods. They typified the county’s historic embrace of mass transit and its strategic use of transportation projects to trigger development in trendy neighborhoods, including Clarendon and Ballston.
But a vocal contingent of Arlingtonians questioned the promised benefits of the project — whose price tag eventually reached $550 million — and wondered whether it was an example of county-funded excess.
“A streetcar makes no sense for Arlington from either a transit efficacy or an economic-development perspective,” said Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt (I), who last spring campaigned against the projects and won in a low-turnout special election, becoming the first member in 15 years who is not a Democrat.
Vihstadt was reelected Nov. 4 for a full, four-year term, again by a wide margin. And again, his campaign centered on opposition to the streetcar. The victory, the board’s chairman, Jay Fisette (D), said Tuesday, sealed the streetcars’ fate.
“How did we arrive at this point? We . . . were caught flat-footed when organized opposition to the streetcar surfaced in just the last year or so,” Fisette said at a sober midday news conference. “We were unable to persuade a majority of voters that a streetcar system is Arlington’s next generation of transit and that we can afford to build it.”
Officials in Arlington and Fairfax estimated that they had spent several million dollars, and countless hours, planning the two projects.
The Columbia Pike streetcar would have run from the Skyline area of Fairfax to Columbia Pike and then to the Crystal City Metro stop, where it would have connected with the Crystal City line. The Columbia Pike streetcar would have ridden on rails embedded in the right lane of traffic in both directions, while the Crystal City line would have run on streets parallel to Route 1.
Opponents noted that the Columbia Pike streetcar would operate in traffic and said modern buses would be faster and less expensive. A bus breakdown, they argued, wouldn’t block traffic as long as a streetcar breakdown would.
Fairfax officials strongly criticized the decision to pull the plug on the streetcar projects, which were endorsed in a number of studies and became a key part of plans to redevelop Baileys Crossroads.
“This unilateral action by the Arlington County Board destroyed 15 years of a joint effort,” said Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason). “It set back transit options in this part of the region for at least a generation or more.”
The streetcar plan had “great support from the governor,” Gross added, and was approved multiple times by the Arlington and Fairfax boards. “And, now,” said Gross, “it’s blown to smithereens.”
The Arlington board voted 4 to 1 to terminate all contracts and agreements related to the streetcars, withdraw funding applications and “develop alternate transportation strategies” for the areas.
Board member J. Walter Tejada (D), who voted to keep the streetcars, lashed out against opponents for “rancor and knee-jerk responses” and said the cancellation would limit plans for much-needed affordable housing in Arlington. The county had planned to require developers who wanted to build along the streetcar lines to provide low- or moderate-income housing in addition to market-rate projects.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth in the District, said that opposition to the streetcars went against Arlington’s history as a place that has fostered transit-based development. “Arlington represents, perhaps, the top national smart-growth story,” Schwartz said. “It went from a declining inner-ring suburb to a very economically successful community.”
Opposition was rooted in resistance to the idea of streetcars in general, Schwartz said, and public transportation projects’ reliance on local tax dollars. “Unfortunately, transit projects face many more hoops and require more local funding than highway projects,” Schwartz said.
Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank, said some studies have shown that streetcar systems aren’t much faster than walking. “I think more people are starting to question if the bang for the buck will really be there,” Poole said. “I can only guess a good-enough case wasn’t made to voters to spend the money.”
Northern Virginia officials had secured state funding to cover as much as half the cost of the projects and planned to use regional transportation and capital funds for most of the rest. Fisette and other officials stressed they would not need to levy a new tax on residents to pay for the streetcars or borrow money through general-obligation bonds.
Bob Buchanan, a veteran developer who is a member of a coalition of business leaders called the 2030 Group, said the failure might provoke area leaders to think more broadly about public transportation. “There’s a need for regional priorities,” Buchanan said, suggesting a regional transportation fund paid into by local governments. The streetcar defeat “might give everyone a chance to step back and see what works best for the region.”
Vihstadt used outrage over a million-dollar “super” bus stop, an expensive dog park and plans for a fancy aquatic center in Arlington to fuel skepticism about the streetcar project and twice defeat Democrat Alan Howze.
One other member of the board, Democrat Libby Garvey, also opposed the streetcar projects. There remained a three-member majority that supported the streetcars, but two of those members — Tejada and Mary H. Hynes (D) — are up for reelection next year.
At board meetings, Vihstadt and Garvey repeatedly sought to halt funding for the streetcars or demand a voter referendum, resulting in standoffs that Fisette said ran counter to “the Arlington Way.”
“This community makes the big decisions together, through a long process of consensus building,” Fisette said. “It may seem mysterious to those outside our community, but the Arlington Way is the glue that holds us together.”
Hynes, vice chairman of the board, called the decision to cancel the projects “a signal to the region that Arlington’s vision has withered.” But she and others also said that Vihstadt’s elections were seen as a proxy for voter opinion.
“Elections do matter, and we’ve had an unsettled year,” Hynes said. “Every candidate has heard the concerns from the citizens.”
Garvey said she and Vihstadt had another motion to defund ready for Tuesday’s meeting, “but I thought we were going lose 3 to 2 again.”
“Do I feel vindicated?” she asked. “It was John’s election, but we were reflecting the views of many in Arlington.”
Laura Vozzella and Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.
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