The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Five steps to doom for Arlington streetcars

This rendering shows how a streetcar might have looked in the Pentagon City area, on South Hayes Street near the Metro station. (Newlands & Company Inc.)
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After years of planning, Arlington County announced Tuesday that it would not build the long-discussed Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar lines.

How did the dream of streetcars in Arlington fall apart? Here are some key moments that help explain a vocal wave of opposition, which eventually became so loud the county’s leaders decided to abandon the project.

1) The million-dollar bus stop. It was a bus stop that would have doubled as a streetcar stop that started it all. The heated, etched-glass waiting place near Columbia Pike and Walter Reed Drive became a punch line and a rallying cry for anti-spending activists after it opened in March 2013. The price tag was $575,000 for construction and fabrication and $440,000 for construction management and inspections.

2) John Vihstadt’s election, Take I. Vihstadt, a Republican-turned-independent, staked his campaign for the Arlington County Board on his opposition to the Columbia Pike streetcar. When he beat Democrat Alan Howze in a low-turnout special election in April, Vihstadt became the first non-Democrat elected to the deep blue county’s board since 1999. The upset sent a clear signal that voters were uncomfortable with the streetcar and other county spending proposals.

3) Skyrocketing costs. In May, the county projected that the 4.5-mile Columbia Pike streetcar would cost $358 million — $100 million more than the county had previously predicted, and $48 million more than federal authorities had estimated the year before.

4) No referendum. The county board decided it could not put a referendum on the streetcar on the ballot. Legally, a referendum must involve a bond proposal, board members said, and they did not want taxpayers stuck paying the bill for the streetcar.

5) John Vihstadt’s election, Take II. Vihstadt faced Howze once again in the general election on Nov. 4, this time for a full four-year term. If the election was a chance for voters to change their minds and pick a pro-streetcar candidate, they didn’t take it. Vihstadt again won a convincing victory — and two weeks later, the county announced that the streetcars were finished.

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