One Arlington County Board member refused to shake another’s hand last week. Another member accused his colleagues of betraying their convictions. Three of the members are accusing the two others of spreading misinformation.
Long-simmering tensions among the five county leaders burst into the open this month after the board voted to undo 15 years of planning and cancel the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar projects.
“Collegiality has almost totally disappeared compared to what it had been in previous years,” said Sandy Horwitt, a 40-year resident long active in county politics. “Things are seriously off track.”
The decision by Chairman Jay Fisette (D) and Vice Chairman Mary Hynes (D) to abandon the streetcar infuriated their longtime ally and fellow Democrat, J. Walter Tejada.
Two years ago, Tejada persuaded the board to require developers to preserve 6,200 affordable apartments as they redeveloped the Columbia Pike corridor around a new streetcar. When Fisette and Hynes told him they needed to talk about giving up the project, Tejada said, he refused to participate in the discussions.
“Will we now become a timid and stagnant community?” asked Tejada, who — like Hynes — is up for reelection in 2015. “I have convictions, and I do not trade them. I do not raise my thumb and see where the political wind is blowing.”
Public opposition to the streetcar was fueled by criticism of the project by board members Libby Garvey (D), elected in 2012, and John Vihstadt (I), elected this year.
After the news conference in which Fisette announced he was killing the project because of the prolonged opposition, Garvey approached him to offer congratulations. Fisette, who is normally non-confrontational, refused to shake her hand.
“He just raised his hand and said ‘not today’ or ‘I can’t’ or something like that,” Garvey said. “And we just passed in the aisle.”
The acrimony is especially notable because of Arlington’s commitment to comity and consensus, which board members and others frequently refer to as “the Arlington Way.” At the Nov. 18 news conference, a sober Fisette said canceling the controversial streetcar initiative was a first step to restoring the Arlington Way. But nobody seems to be ready to turn the other cheek.
Fisette, Hynes and Tejada are openly frustrated with Garvey, whom they blame more than Vihstadt for spreading misinformation about the project.
Fisette, in an interview, denounced Garvey’s repeated call for “bus-rapid transit” as a better alternative to the streetcar. Bus-rapid transit involve buses that run in dedicated lanes — an impossibility on Columbia Pike because of state transportation restrictions. Fisette said Garvey’s frequent assertions that funds allocated to the streetcar could be rerouted to relieve school overcrowding is equally false, because the streetcar money came from dedicated transportation dollars.
“She made it her full-time job to defeat the streetcar and influence public opinion,” Fisette said. “The voice of our highly respected professional staff was challenged and dismissed.”
Garvey declined to respond to Fisette’s comments this week, saying only that she “very much hopes” that the board will work together “for the good of the community.”
Vihstadt, while a vigorous opponent of the streetcar, has used a more moderate tone and acknowledged that “reasonable people can differ,” and has drawn less direct criticism.
“It’s natural for there to be tension from time to time on a governing body when you have a diversity of opinion,” Vihstadt said this week. “We haven’t had that for a long time — the board had grown cozy and self-satisfied and wasn’t used to challenges from within.”
Some residents, shocked by the board’s turnaround, say Fisette was wrong to interpret Vihstadt’s election on Nov. 4 as a vote against the transit project.
“Many people, pro-streetcar people, voted for Vihstadt not because he was against the streetcar, but because they wanted a difference of opinion on the board,” said Eric Harold, chairman of the Barcoft School and Civic League.
The board seems to have fallen out of touch, some residents said, with an electorate worried about the economy and overcrowded schools and disinclined to support expensive capital projects — including the now-delayed Long Bridge Aquatics Center, a $1.6 million dog park in Clarendon and a $1 million bus and streetcar stop on Columbia Pike.
But the streetcar “became like flypaper,” Horwitt said, sticking to every other issue.
With the project dead, residents say they are eager to see the board move forward with new plans for the Columbia Pike and Crystal City corridors.
“As a civic activist, I have to ask myself, did I just waste a lot of time?” said John Snyder, who is on the steering committee for StreetcarNow. “It’s time for somebody from the opposition to step up, and raise new ideas instead of just saying no.”
Inta Malis, an Arlington planning commissioner, said retailers on Columbia Pike have been operating at a loss, banking on future revenue that would come with a revitalized, streetcar-anchored corridor.
“It would be good if there was a plan in place,” she said. “I don’t know who is carrying the ball now. Somebody has to take charge.”