Small-business owner Kieran Daly moved his graphic-design firm to southern Arlington 31 / 2 years ago partly because he expected the Columbia Pike streetcar to arrive, making it easier to hire top-quality employees.
“It was part of the attraction of coming here, the idea of connecting this space with other spaces with transit rather than cars,” said Daly, 41, owner of the Winking Fish. He said that was important in “being able to attract younger talent.”
But taxpayer backlash in this month’s elections threatens to scuttle the long-planned streetcar. County Board member John Vihstadt (I), who opposes the project, was reelected. That puts heavy pressure on the rest of the board to rethink the enterprise.
Loss of the streetcar would be a serious setback for Daly and others along the pike. They have counted on the transit project to attract business and promote growth in their communities.
Claudia Salazar, co-owner of the Cafe Sazon restaurant and coffee shop, has been expecting the streetcar to lure customers from the Pentagon and Crystal City.
“We really hope it does get built,” said Salazar, 45, a Bolivian immigrant who owns the shop with her sister. “It would help with the traffic and attract more people.”
Salazar’s family spent $250,000 four years ago to open the cafe next door to her mother’s hair salon. They grew discouraged at one point but chose to stick with the venture because of the streetcar’s promise.
“We thought we were putting too much money and effort into this and we should sell,” Salazar said. “But then the streetcar is keeping my hopes up. . . . In the long run, it would be really beneficial.”
The Nov. 4 election results in Arlington show how the surge of anti-spending sentiment among voters is creating major doubts about the Washington region’s strategy for growth in the inner suburbs.
For many years, the area has planned to build transit lines, particularly the Columbia Pike streetcar and Maryland’s Purple Line, to promote economic development without worsening traffic congestion.
Now both projects are endangered. In Maryland, voters elected a new governor, Larry Hogan (R), who thinks the state can’t afford the Purple Line.
I think supporters should keep pushing for the two projects. For the sake of the environment and our quality of life, we need more dense, urban-style neighbor-hoods where people are less dependent on cars.
If the voters deem otherwise, however, we need to find other ways to encourage growth and mobility in the corridors that the projects are supposed to serve. That would probably include increased bus service, which costs less than light rail but typically does not yield the same economic boost.
The debates are slightly different in Arlington and Maryland. In Arlington, the streetcar was very much a primary focus of the election. County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D) said afterward that he and other supporters “have to take stock of what happened.”
In Maryland, however, Hogan won with a broad message of reducing taxes and cutting wasteful spending. The Purple Line got comparatively little attention.
Hogan’s surprise victory has triggered a guessing game about which of three major state transit projects, if any, would survive the budget ax he has promised to wield. Under the pro-transit incumbent, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), the state planned to build the Purple Line linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the Red Line in Baltimore and the Corridor Cities Transitway in northern Montgomery County.
The Purple Line is the project that most deserves to be spared. It would cost the state less than the Red Line and is further along in the planning than the transitway.
Without the Purple Line, Maryland’s inner suburbs risk falling even further behind the District and Northern Virginia in the competition to attract young people who want to live in walkable, transit-friendly communities.
Gus Bauman, a former Montgomery planning board chair, recently called attention to this danger on the blog Maryland Juice.
“The economic future of our region is increasingly concentrating along the [Metro’s] Blue and Orange and now Silver Lines,” Bauman wrote. “We must be candid with ourselves. Except for Silver Spring, Montgomery County has no place today that can realistically compete for the attentions and diverse demands of the all-important Uber Generation,” or the post-millennial generation.
Let’s hope the governor-elect is listening.
For next Sunday’s column: Nominations for the Washington region’s “Turkeys of the Year” are now welcome. Candidates must hail from the District, Virginia or Maryland and have done something really self-defeating during 2014.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.