The Arlington County general election ballot this fall does not feature a referendum on the Columbia Pike-Crystal City streetcar project, but the race for the County Board will serve as a close stand-in.
The two candidates for the seat tangled Monday night over their vision for the next four years. As in their previous bout last spring, the civic value and fiscal worth of the $333 million transit-and-development plan dominated the discussion.
Before an audience of 125 at George Mason University, incumbent John Vihstadt, a Republican running as an independent, attacked the streetcar as a symptom of overspending on unnecessary capital projects. Democrat Alan Howze argued that on its merits, the streetcar will more than pay for itself, triggering the kind of development that Metrorail brought Arlington over the past 50 years.
“Once again, we face a set of generational choices,” said Howze, 39. “In 1968, our community debated whether to invest in Metro. The John Vihstadts of that time proposed buses up and down Wilson Boulevard. Decades ago, opponents said the same thing about the Silver Line. If we had listened to them, we would have lost out on billions of dollars of economic growth, hundreds of thousands new jobs, and hundreds of millions of new funding for our schools.”
Vihstadt, 61, dismissed the comparison between Metrorail and the streetcar, noting that Arlingtonians were able to vote for or against Metro directly, that it connects two states and the District, and it runs in its own “dedicated lane,” while the streetcar will share a lane with other traffic.
“The fact is, there’s no community consensus on the streetcar,” he said. “If transit alone was a panacea for economic development, we would not have a 30 percent commercial vacancy rate in Crystal City right now.”
The debate reprises many of the ones staged last spring, when Vihstadt and Howze battled to fill rest of the term left open when long-time streetcar advocate Chris Zimmerman resigned. Vihstadt shocked Arlington’s Democratic establishment by winning big in that low-turnout special election. Now fighting for the full, four-year term, the two candidates are sticking to their previous positions, although expressing them more sharply.
Vihstadt, with several months’ incumbency, claimed credit for the board’s decision to cut the property tax rate by a penny, the return of an internal auditor and pushing for a board vote on procurement contracts worth more than $1 million.
Howze attacked that record, pointing out Vihstadt’s “no” vote on the capital improvement plan in July, a budget that funds schools and parks and other infrastructure, “all to make a point about streetcars,” he said.
Howze argued for more attention to be paid to school overcrowding and where to build or expand schools.
The candidates generally agreed on supporting affordable housing, although neither had a clear answer as to how to solve the problem of low- to moderate-income families who are being priced out of the county. Arlington now spends about 5 percent of its general fund budget on housing, with a mix of private and public initiatives.
Vihstadt and Howze also agreed that the county’s building permit process needs improvement and streamlining. Neither wants to build housing or schools on existing parkland.
The candidates meet again Thursday evening at the Walter Reed Community Center and Park, at 2909 16th Street South.