A majority of the Arlington County Board on Tuesday declared its opposition to a referendum on the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar projects, a step that took opponents of the projects by surprise and set up a possible showdown between pro- and anti-streetcar factions in November’s general election.
Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D) and two other members who support the streetcar projects said the five-member board does not have the legal authority to order a non-binding, advisory referendum. They said a vote by the public would have to take the form of a bond referendum, which could burden county homeowners.
“I’m committed to the streetcar, but not at any cost,” Fisette said in an interview just before giving his public statement. “If it requires Arlington homeowners to take on bond debt to pay for it, I will walk away from it.”
Board members John Vihstadt (I) and Libby Garvey (D) — as well as other referendum proponents — seemed to have been caught off guard by the coordinated statements delivered by their colleagues at the board’s workshop session Tuesday afternoon. They warned that voters would have their say at the ballot box this fall.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there’s no such thing as a free streetcar,” Garvey said. “We all are going to be paying for this streetcar.”
Under Virginia law, any referendum vote on the streetcar would have to involve a proposal to issue general obligation bonds. If streetcar construction becomes part of a successful bond proposal, Arlington homeowners would end up footing part of the bill, Fisette said. That is something he and fellow board members Mary H. Hynes (D) and J. Walter Tejada (D) said they oppose.
The Columbia Pike streetcar line would cost an estimated $358 million to build and about $4 million a year to operate. The cost of building the Crystal City line is estimated at $227 million. The money for the shorter Crystal City line is supposed to come from commercial and industrial real estate taxes, as well as state and federal grants. The source of funding for the Columbia Pike project is unsettled, although the capital improvement budget, which will be voted on next month, assumes a similar mix.
The Columbia Pike line, particularly, has become a hot-button issue in Arlington. It’s been planned for more than a decade, but about two years ago, opponents began raising questions about the cost. The cars will not run in a dedicated lane, and opponents say a modern bus system would work just as well.
Pressure for a referendum on the issue increased with Vihstadt’s election in April to the County Board. He based his campaign partly on opposition to the Columbia Pike streetcar. Last month, local Democratic Party leaders blamed Vihstadt’s victory on the “perceived arrogance” of the board. Both the losing Democrat, Alan Howze, and state Del. Patrick Hope (D) called for a streetcar referendum after the primary.
At the time, Fisette said he took the call seriously. On Tuesday, he said he had concluded that a referendum was not necessary and that better communication about “the clear benefits of the modern streetcar” is what’s needed.
Vihstadt said Tuesday that he supports multi-modal mass transit but that a modified version of bus rapid transit could be in place faster than a streetcar, more cheaply, with less disruption and with comparable benefits.
“Fortunately, there are other ways voters can express their opinions, and that’s at elections,” he said. His term expires at the end of the year; he will again face Howze in November.
The Columbia Pike line would run from the Skyline area of Fairfax County to the Pentagon City Metro stop, with a link to the less-controversial Crystal City corridor, which would run down Route 1 to Alexandria.
The area to be served will account for 65 percent of Arlington’s population growth and 44 percent of its job growth in the next 30 years, Fisette said. He also said streetcar service would attract private investment along the two corridors and provide more tax revenue to the county. He compared the decision to build a streetcar system with the county’s decision in the 1960s and 1970s to put Metrorail underground along Wilson Boulevard, instead of running trains down the center of Interstate 66.