Was reelection of Vihstadt in Arlington a referendum on streetcar?

Arlington Democrats were unable to defeat incumbent independent County Board member John Vihstadt after a campaign that focused attention on a controversial proposal to build a $333 million streetcar system on Columbia Pike. Now the debate about the streetcar system may be headed in a new direction.

When independent candidate John Vihstadt, a former Republican, won a special election for County Board earlier this year, Democrats said it was a fluke — a phenomenon on a low-turnout special election. The party selected the same candidate, Alan Howze, to run against Vihstadt in the general election.

Once again, Vihstadt campaigned against the streetcar while Howze supported it. Once again, Howze lost — the third election where opponents of the project have been successful. Coalition for Smarter Growth executive director Stewart Schwartz acknowledges that if Howze had won, advocates for the streetcar would have interpreted it as a win for the project.

“It would have a been a positive for the streetcar for sure,” Schwartz says.

But he also says that supporters of the streetcar do not view Vihstadt’s victory last week as a sign that voters are rejecting the streetcar.

“Ah, no we wouldn’t because elections are usually much more complicated,” he says.

Opponents of the streetcar say voters have shown they think that the streetcar system is a boondoggle. Peter Rousselot of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit says the message from voters is unequivocal: “If you don’t change your plans and cancel this project, we will replace you with other people who will.”

The proposal is still in the planning stages, and a groundbreaking is still years away. Rousselot says that means the three members on the County Board who still support it have a choice to make.

“Act statesmanlike and cancel the project or persist in it and then get picked off one after another by others who will vote to kill the project,” Rousselot says.

Next year, two of the incumbent members who support the streetcar will be up for reelection, and opponents say they will have candidates ready to run against the streetcar once again.

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