Arlington launches PR campaign on streetcars, may forgo federal funds

Correction: Earlier versions of this story mistakenly described County Board member John Vihstadt as one of the few registered Republicans to hold office in Arlington. Virginia does not register voters by party. Vihstadt, who has been involved in Republican party politics in the past, ran as an Independent and is currently the only non-Democrat holding office in Arlington. The text of the story has been corrected.


A map of the Columbia Pike initiative.

Arlington County has launched a new public relations campaign to promote its controversial Columbia Pike streetcar project and is exploring whether the project could advance more quickly if it is built without using federal funds.

Officials say they are trying to convince voters of the project’s merits after a tide of criticism by opponents, including County Board members John Vihstadt (I) and Libby Garvey (D). The county plans to ramp up promotions on social media and at the county fair in August, and it is considering a public bus tour.

A day after the board’s three pro-streetcar members announced that they would not let the public vote on the long-planned, $358 million project, the county unveiled video testimonials from prominent residents, and posted informational posters and other material on a county-administered streetcar Web site.

“This is not an advertising campaign,” County Manager Barbara Donnellan said. “There are sound bites out there, a lot of misinformation. I’m not trying to advertise or promote, I’m trying to get information out.”

But opponents say there is already plenty of information available. What there is not, they say, is evidence that the board is willing to listen to its constituents, some of whom made their sentiments clear when they put Vihstadt on the board in a special election in April.

“Most people in Arlington have concluded they know what the streetcar is, and they don’t like it,” said Peter Rousselot, a leader of the anti-streetcar group Arling­tonians for Sensible Transit. Vihstadt, Arlington’s only non-Democratic elected official, made opposing the streetcar a cornerstone of his campaign.

Arlington officials say the Columbia Pike streetcar, and a less-controversial streetcar project along Route 1 and Crystal Drive in Crystal City, are necessary to address an anticipated jump in population and jobs in those corridors.

“Our community’s success is tied to our transit investments and the return on those investments,” former state senator Mary Margaret Whipple (D) says in one of the video clips uploaded to the county YouTube channel. “Streetcars will fulfill the Main Street vision for Columbia Pike, just as Metro transformed the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor.”

The projects are a “generational investment,” officials say, akin to the building of Metrorail in the 1970s. The County Board has endorsed the Columbia Pike streetcar twice in recent years.

Jay Fisette (D), the board’s chairman, said he believes a streetcar would attract significant private investment, which would generate taxes for schools and infrastructure and “help ensure our county’s long-term financial sustainability.”

But opponents don’t believe that a streetcar will make that much difference in spurring development, and they dismiss county-funded studies that say otherwise.

Vihstadt said Wednesday that a modified version of rapid transit buses would be significantly cheaper, faster to set up and more flexible, because bus routes are not fixed in place by rails and overhead wires. And he and others add that because the Pike streetcar would not have its own dedicated lane — it would run in the right lane of regular traffic in both directions — it would not be faster than a bus system.

Both Vihstadt and board member Libby Garvey are voicing objections to the public information campaign, asking how much it cost and why their opposition to the project was not reflected.

Although the county’s campaign so far has been run by its own employees, a county spokeswoman said that an $8 million contract with a consultant who will oversee the streetcar plans includes up to $650,000 for communications and outreach during the first year.

The spokeswoman, Jennifer K. Smith, said that Vihstadt and Garvey are in the minority in opposing the streetcar and that county public information efforts reflect board policy, which is set by the majority.

Arlington officials have said that approximately half the cost of the Columbia Pike streetcar would come from federal dollars. But this week, Fisette asked Donnellan to develop an alternative funding plan, one that requires neither federal funding nor general obligation bonds that would put a financial burden on Arlington homeowners. County officials have emphasized that no homeowner taxes will be used to pay for the streetcar.

Going without federal money could save time and money, Fisette said, and would remove the uncertainty of whether the cash would come through.

Donnellan said that she’s “confident” the streetcar line could be built without federal funds but will need a month or so to draft a plan for doing so, likely relying on state and local funds and on contributions from commercial entities.

But experts were skeptical.

“It’s hard to think of a major project at that order of magnitude being done without federal funding,” said Joung H. Lee of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “I can’t think of any off the top of my head.”

In 2007, Seattle built a $52 million streetcar line — a fraction of the cost Arlington is proposing — without federal money, said Jeff Boothe, executive director of the Community Streetcar Coalition. A few years earlier, Portland launched a $58 million streetcar that received only a small amount from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“All other modern streetcar projects have received funding” through federal programs, Boothe said.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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