‘Perfect Arlington’ risks losing its reputation with ballooning cost, poor defense of streetcar

Arlington County has long enjoyed such a favorable reputation for collegial, progressive-minded government that politicians from neighboring counties tease its board members for representing “perfect Arlington.”

The title is out of date.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

The divisive battle over the Columbia Pike streetcar, together with overpriced embarrassments such as the “$1 million bus stop,” suggest a new label is needed.

I nominate “inept Arlington.” That captures the county’s recent record of alienating residents with wasteful spending and ballooning costs for public projects.

The latest example came Tuesday when the county raised by $48 million its estimate for building the streetcar. The new price tag: $358 million for a 41 / 2-mile line.

It wasn’t the first jump in the projected cost. Last year, federal officials announced a $61 million increase.

Did I mention that the completion date has been pushed back by three years, to 2021?

“It’s a bait and switch,” said County Board member Libby Garvey (D), an outspoken streetcar critic.

“The estimates are low-balled. You get people interested, saying, ‘Isn’t this a neat idea?’ Then people get committed, we’ve decided, and the costs increase,” Garvey said.

Now, here’s the twist. Even at the higher price, I think supporters make plausible arguments for laying rails and adding streetcars on Columbia Pike.

The advocates, including most leaders of the county’s dominant Democratic party, say the streetcar is necessary to revitalize the main corridor in south Arlington’s less-affluent neighborhoods. They say buses alone can’t attract necessary development and handle long-term growth.

But proponents will never persuade the public if they can’t do a better job of holding down county spending, in general, and explaining why the streetcar makes sense.

Fortunately, a public backlash has prompted overdue soul-searching among Democrats about how to improve.

The main event to shake their complacency was Independent John Vihstadt’s landslide victory in an April special election. Campaigning against the streetcar and other “vanity projects,” he became the first non-Democrat elected to the board in 15 years.

Even before the election, however, the county was trimming sails. In January, Arlington put on hold plans for a costly aquatics center at Long Bridge Park.

After the platinum price for a bus “superstop” prototype drew deserved derision nationwide, the county agreed to redesign it. It announced earlier this month that the price for 23 successors would be lowered by 40 percent.

Selling the streetcar remains the biggest test. County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D) conceded he and other advocates have come up short.

“I am not going to argue that we have done an ‘A’ job on communications,” Fisette said. “We have to be able to communicate the benefits better than we have.”

It’s a challenge partly because it’s a complicated, often technical argument. The crux is whether it’s smart to pay more for streetcars because they supposedly offer key, long-term benefits that cheaper buses do not.

That, in turn, boils down to two main questions.

The first is: Can streetcars really handle a lot more passengers than buses, as defenders say? By 2035, the county estimates that streetcars would carry more than six out of 10 passengers along the Columbia Pike corridor.

“We have been systematically investing in increased bus service,” Arlington Transportation Director Dennis Leach said. “Our conclusion is it’s only going to take us so far, and a rail investment is required.”

The other key question: Will developers really be more willing to invest in south Arlington once they see rails in the ground? Advocates say only then would builders trust there’s a permanent commitment to public transit there.

“It’s not a soundbite answer,” Fisette said.

Fisette and others say Arlington needs to embrace a bold vision with the streetcar as it did in the 1960s when it committed to build Metro. The Orange and Blue lines’ success has won the county national applause for its far-sighted planning.

But a streetcar, in mixed traffic, is considerably less ambitious and attractive than a subway. It’s even more difficult to peddle when the cost keeps rising, and the peddlers have a record of overspending on other projects.

“The taxpaying public is not having a lot of confidence that governments can deliver these projects on time, on budget, or in an effective manner,” Vihstadt said.

Arlington needs to rebuild that trust lest it lose its reputation for effective local government.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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