Columbia Pike streetcar project, Baileys Crossroads revitalization could be in peril

While the Columbia Pike streetcar project has support from many Fairfax County officials, it remains on thin political ice in Arlington County, Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said.

Independent John Vihstadt easily defeated Democrat Alan Howze Nov. 4 to win a full four-year term on the Arlington County Board. The result was a confirmation of an April special election, when Vihstadt trounced Howze.

Vihstadt and Democrat Libby Garvey oppose the streetcar project; the other three County Board members – Democrats Mary Hynes, Walter Tejada and chairman Jay Fisette – support it.

Unlike most Virginia counties, Arlington’s elected officials serve staggered terms, meaning at least one is on the ballot every year.Hynes’ and Tejada’s seats will be up for grabs next November, and streetcar opponents could obtain a project-stopping majority by defeating just one of them.

“It would be a shame if the project were delayed or stopped,” Bulova said. “We have been working with the Arlington board and staff to move the project forward.”

The five-mile streetcar line, which would run between Pentagon City in Arlington and Baileys Crossroads in Fairfax County, would cost an estimated $350 million, with a mix of state, regional and local funding. Fairfax County would cover roughly 20 percent of the local costs, with Arlington contributing the rest.

Fairfax County officials consider the streetcar project a valuable transit link for an area that originally was going to be served by Metrorail, Bulova said.

Bulova, who said she plans to seek another term next November, stressed that delays – politically caused or otherwise – will boost the streetcar project’s cost.

“Time is money,” she said. “If the project is to be, it is important that it move forward expeditiously so it’s as cost-effective as possible.”

Fairfax County officials, who hope to use the streetcar to boost revitalization efforts in Skyline and Baileys Crossroads, have been examining options for holding the project’s cost down. One would be to piggyback on another jurisdiction’s contract and order streetcars that already have been designed, she said.

While actively supportive of the streetcar project, Fairfax County officials will not dip their toes into Arlington to influence voters there, Bulova said.

“Arlington is Arlington and Fairfax is Fairfax,” she said.

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.”

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.”
Vihstadt is the first non-Democrat to serve on the Arlington County Board since 1999 and the first non-Democrat to win a board seat in a general election in 30 years.

Feld savaged the Arlington Democratic leadership, the Howze campaign and the pro-streetcar forces for allowing others to define the election as a referendum against big-ticket spending and out-of-touch political leaders.

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

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