With elections coming, Arlington board derails streetcar

Part 9 of 8 in the series Arlington Traffic Troubles

SKEPTIC: John Vihstadt won 56 percent of the vote last summer with his campaign against the Arlington streetcar project. Fellow board members looking ahead to next year’s elections called a halt to the venture Tuesday.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. – Critics hailed Arlington County’s decision Tuesday to scrap plans for a controversial streetcar project.

“I know this decision did not come easily for my three County Board colleagues, who supported the streetcar, but I applaud their concession to political reality and to the voices of Arlington voters,” said John Vihstadt.

Vihstadt, an independent who won two consecutive elections on an anti-streetcar platform, said the streetcar proposals for Columbia Pike and Crystal City made “no sense for Arlington from either a transit efficacy or an economic development perspective.”

“I have come to the conclusion that the only way to move forward together … is to discontinue the streetcar project,” Board Chairman Jay Fisette told reporters. “After close consultation with (board members Mary) Hynes and (Walter) Tejada, with our partners in Fairfax and Richmond and with members of the community, Ms. Hynes and I have agreed that all spending on streetcar must end.”

The multimillion-dollar project became a lightning rod of controversy, sparking an investigative series by Watchdog.org last year. Fisette’s announcement came on the day Watchdog reported that the county was considering plans to increase property taxes.

“We cannot ignore the political realities. … Right now the level of discord is such that I haven’t seen for awhile. It keeps us from addressing other pressing needs in the community,” Fisette said.

Vihstadt agreed, saying in a statement:

“I look forward to working with all of my colleagues to renew our focus and concentrate our energies to address the host of priority challenges that our county continues to confront, including schools capacity, infrastructure maintenance, adequate parks and fields space, and affordable housing, as well as the revitalization of both the Columbia Pike and Route 1 corridors.”

Hynes and Tejada are up for election next year. Libby Garvey, who also opposed the streetcar venture, faces re-election in 2016. Fisette’s term runs through 2016.

All except Vihstadt are Democrats.

Joe Warren, a member of the Arlington Transit Advisory Committee, called the board’s reversal a stop sign for ill-conceived transit projects nationally.

Asserting that “people were increasingly concerned by the arrogance of the board,” Warren said grassroots disgust galvanized opposition.

An opposition group, Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, formed to fight the project by countering county consultants with statistics on ridership and traffic. After Vihstadt’s re-election, Fairfax Board Chairwoman Sharon Bulova began questioning the streetcar project that would have stretched into her county next door.

“It was like a snowball rolling downhill,” Warren said. “This is an amazing day for Arlington.”

Ron Wilcox, head of the Arlington Tea Party, called it “a good day for limited government.”

“People will not be saddled with the expense of an antiquated transit system that would degrade the efficiency of the transportation network,” he said.

Kenric Ward is a national reporter for Watchdog.org and bureau of its Virginia Bureau. Contact him at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward