Voters send a message of dissatisfaction to Arlington County officials over spending

A groundswell of electoral unrest seems to be rattling the Arlington County establishment, a month after voters elected a non-Democrat to the County Board for the first time in 15 years.

Residents of the affluent suburb seem increasingly fed up with spending on what some call “vanity projects” and the perception that voters have little influence over them. And public officials are taking notice.

The May newsletter from the Arlington County Democratic Committee includes a scathing article by the party leadership that blames Alan Howze’s April 8 loss to independent John Vihstadt on the perceived “arrogance” of the board, particularly in regard to spending decisions.

In addition, momentum seems to be building for a referendum on the county’s much-debated Columbia Pike streetcar project. The idea was proposed last week by Howze and Patrick Hope, a state delegate who is one of 10 candidates for the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s 8th Congressional District. This week, the county’s treasurer, Frank O’Leary, and commissioner of revenue, Ingrid Morroy, said they would push for a referendum, too.

“My sense from talking with residents around the county is they want and expect elected officials to listen to them,” said Howze, who will compete again for the same county board seat in November. “Large investments that will affect the future of the community, they expect they will have a say in that.”

To be sure, most of the concerns reverberating in Arlington could be defined as “first-world problems.” Property taxes are high, but so are property values. There are more jobs than working-age residents. Schools are crowded, but well regarded. Violent crime is low. The most recent county-sponsored survey of residents, in 2012, showed that 92 percent of Arlingtonians were satisfied with their quality of life.

All of which makes the anger voiced in the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s newsletter article even more notable. The piece was based on anonymous observations by members of a 20-person steering committee, said the newsletter’s editor, Warren L. Nelson.

One member attributes Howze’s loss to “the current ruling coalition on the County Board and their aloofness, hubris and tone-deaf attitude toward their constituents.” Another cited “deep resentment within the community . . . and the widely held belief that the Board refuses to consult and be held accountable.”

County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D), who supports the streetcar project, said he takes the concerns seriously.

“Part of my job is to listen, learn and adjust,” he said. “The disruption, the discomfort and uncertainty in the community in connection to the streetcar issues can’t go on forever.”

In interviews Friday, supporters and opponents of the streetcar said they thought there should be a vote on the issue.

“You want a plebiscite, sure,” said Donald Flage, a Virginia Square resident who was playing tennis at Bon Air Park in Bluemont. He said he opposes the construction of the streetcar line because “it’s going back to the past.”

Masha Sharma of Shirlington, leaving a bakery with a cup of coffee, said she likes the idea of a streetcar along Columbia Pike, but she also said residents should have a say on whether it goes forward. “People who live in the area, their daily routines could be disrupted,” she said.

Fisette and other board members who support the streetcar liken the project to the construction of Metrorail, which brought prosperity to many formerly neglected areas. They say voters got plenty of input during a decade-long planning process, which included hundreds of community meetings.

Financing for the streetcar project remains uncertain. County officials were turned down for some federal funding last year because U.S. transportation officials said the project probably would cost $60 million to $150 million more than the $250 million the county was estimating at the time. Next week, County Manager Barbara Donnellan plans to propose a new financing plan as part of the long-range capital improvements budget.

Tamon Honda, a middle-aged Federal Aviation Administration employee who lives in Boulevard Manor, said he feels that the county board has ruled “by fiat” in approving projects that are controversial or do not enjoy widespread support.

The many community meetings about the streetcar, he said, “were carefully controlled from the start. . . . I thought it was such a foolish idea that it would be shot down at some point. But it never was.”

Honda, like others, also said he was frustrated by the County Board’s decision to build a $79.1 million aquatics center at Long Bridge Park, a project now on hold because bids came in significantly higher than expected. That issue was nominally approved by voters in a 2012 bond referendum, but it was contained within a “parks and recreation” ballot line and not explicitly spelled out. Critics also mention the $2.2 million that county taxpayers spend every year to support the money-losing Artisphere. Others decry the $1.5 million spent last summer to build a dog park.

“Long-time Arlingtonians, myself included, prided ourselves in ‘the Arlington Way.’ This meant all issues before the county were resolved though discussions,” Honda wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “Sometimes the discussions were very lengthy. . . . Still, at least everyone was satisfied that they were heard.”

Another flurry of online derision came in response to the announcement Tuesday of a 40 percent reduction in the cost of new streetcar-bus stops along Columbia Pike — from $1 million per stop to $469,000.

“Why don’t they just build a nice 4,000 square foot colonial with a two car garage and a pool at each bus stop,” 30-year-old Takoma Park, Md., resident Devin Chesney wrote in response to a Post article on the topic. “That would probably come in a little cheaper and give bus riders a nice place to relax while they wait.”

Arlington transportation officials say the new transit stations are seven times the size of a typical bus shelter and offer more durability and amenities.

Vihstadt, who campaigned on voter unhappiness over spending, is one of two board members who oppose the streetcar. The other is Libby Garvey (D), who stepped down from a party leadership post last week under pressure because she had endorsed Vihstadt over Howze.

“Many people have already stated that my election . . . was referendum enough on the wisdom of Arlington streetcars,” Vihstadt said. He said the county should suspend all streetcar-related expenditures until voters can make their will known.

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