A week after election, anti-streetcar candidate in Arlington makes move on transit funds

John Vihstadt, the Arlington County Board member who won a special election a week ago based largely on his opposition to the Columbia Pike streetcar, tried Tuesdsay to de-fund the long-planned transportation project.

Vihstadt (I), joined by his anti-streetcar ally, board member Libby Garvey (D), unsuccessfuly sought to prevent the county government from spending money for the next two years on planning, design or construction of the project, which is estimated to cost $310 million.

The surprise motion came at the end of the board’s final work on the fiscal year 2015 budget, which is scheduled to be approved next Tuesday. Board chairman Jay Fisette (D) announced that the elected officials had decided several weeks ago to find a way to reduce Arlington’s tax rate by a penny, from $1.006 per $100 of assessed value, because assessments rose faster than expected. Without the change, the owner of an average Arlington home would see his or her tax bill increase about 5.3 percent, to $7,371.

The extra money that those higher assessments brings in allowed the county board members to add $18.5 million in ongoing or one-time-only services and grants. It also added $8.1 million to the $432.2 million that the public schools will receive next year.

The five-member board methodically worked through the budget adjustments for two hours, until Garvey and Vihstadt pounced.

Garvey first attempted to put a “moratorium” on the Crystal City tax increment financing district, which is funded by commercial taxpayers. The money that goes into that fund, which is slated for infrastructure improvements, should instead go to the general fund, she said.

“There are lots of large pots of money” in the budget dedicated to specific expenditures, she noted. “Meanwhile we’re squeezing everybody else and obviously part of it is for the streetcar.”

The infrastructure work in Crystal City is in part preparing the way for a “bus transitway,” the predecessor to an expected streetcar line between Crystal City and Potomac Yard in Alexandria.

Other board members objected, saying that removing the dedicated funding would violate the county’s promise to businesses and developers. Board member Walter Tejada (D) scolded Garvey for overlooking the long process that led to the decision to revitalize Crystal City.

“I take exception to Ms. Garvey’s comment’s that we’re squeezing everybody,” he said, pointing to the budget additions the board just prepared. “Another way to put it [is that] we are investing in our community. To say otherwise is wrong.”

After that attempt failed, Vihstadt tried to bar the use of any operating funds on streetcars in Crystal City or Columbia Pike. His lengthy motion also sought a “complete and transparent accounting” of funds in the current and coming budget that would support the streetcar projects, and asked that that money be sent to the school district.

Fisette noted that the amount of local money dedicated to transporation “has hardly grown” over the years. Tejada again objected that “it is wrong to give the impression that funds for one thing takes away from schools. I completely disagree... that somehow we are not being responsive to the schools,” he said.

That motion, too, failed 3-2 with only Vihstadt and Garvey’s support.

Vihstadt, who had said election night that his first priority would be to get an independent auditor to oversee Arlington’s spending and financial priorities, backed off that statement Tuesday after he learned of the internal auditing that the county does and its plans to make that role more robust. He sought to have the county manager report back half way through the year on where the project stands.

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