Streetcars will improve Arlington’s competitiveness, board chairman says

Pledging to stick with the Arlington County Board’s position in support of streetcars along Columbia Pike and in Crystal City, Board Chairman Jay Fisette told a business audience Tuesday morning that the transit project is vital to the continuing economic competitiveness of the county.

Fisette (D), in an hour-long State of the County address to the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, tied the controversial transit project to the county’s long-standing practice of making long-term plans, then carrying them out. Although overcrowded schools and rising housing costs are symptoms of success, he said, building a streetcar system through South Arlington will help keep the county livable, innovative and thriving.

The streetcar, Fisette said, “is our next generational investment,” adding that “we are at a crossroads, and we must lead for the future.”

The county has launched a public relations campaign to spread its arguments for why the light-rail construction is the right decision. John Vihstadt (I) and Libby Garvey (D), the two most recently elected County Board members, are not convinced, but they are the minority voices on the five-member board concerning the streetcars.

Fisette’s arguments combined the embattled Columbia Pike line with the less-controversial Crystal City streetcar plans, as the county’s communications campaign now does, and tied it to the county’s decision in the 1970s to pay for the more-expensive underground route for Metrorail rather than the cheaper alternative of a Metro route down the center of Interstate 66. That decision, he and others say, created the commercial and residential boom from Rosslyn to Ballston.

Fisette said the streetcar routes — a combined 7.4 miles — will help accommodate the expected increases of 40,000 residents, 20,000 residences and 37,000 jobs by 2040. The addition of buses, as opponents suggest, cannot handle that kind of growth, Fisette said.

Although funding is still unsettled, Fisette repeated his vows that “zero homeowner money” will be used to build the combined $585 million projects and that he would “walk away from the project rather than violate that pledge.” Residential property taxes will still be used to pay for the streetcars’ operation costs, now estimated at $4 million a year.

Last week, the County Board majority declared its opposition to holding a voter referendum on the streetcars, and Fisette asked the staff to investigate whether the Columbia Pike portion could be built without using federal money. Until now, federal funds were expected to cover half the cost of the $358 million construction.

Commercial landowners pay half the real estate taxes in Arlington, which gives the county budget stability.

Tuesday’s audience at the Crystal City Marriott was friendly and had only two questions on the subject, including what the financing plan would be without federal money.

Fisette said money from a commercial and industrial real estate tax that can be used only for transportation projects; a new state transportation funding being distributed in the region; and a Crystal City-Pentagon City-Potomac Yard tax-increment financing fund could be the main sources for the money. Going without money from the federal government would free the county from some requirements and could get the construction started faster, which would save money, he said. But the answer depends on what the staff finds out and reports back to the County Board, expected by mid-July. The county may still apply for federal funding.

Fisette also touched on a variety of other issues, including the state’s cease-and-desist order to Uber and other ride-sharing businesses, development projects underway elsewhere in Arlington and the search for a new economic development director.

Long-term planning, and the execution of that, is what sets Arlington apart from other local governments in the region, he said.

“Despite our growth, traffic is down,” he said, citing statistics that show the increased popularity of walking, biking and taking Metro or buses rather than driving single-occupancy vehicles. He also highlighted demographic and performance numbers well-suited to a talk to a chamber of commerce.

“The crime rate is low, the streets are safe, neighbors help neighbors. . . . We have proven our creativity as a community,” Fisette said. Although the commercial vacancy rate is about 20 percent throughout the 26-square-mile jurisdiction, he noted that is the result of federal leasing decisions. Unemployment is the lowest in Virginia, young workers are moving into the community — “and did I mention we’re smart?” he said of the highly-educated workforce.

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