Tempers do not appear to have cooled over the Arlington County Board’s decision last month to abandon the long-planned Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars.
Two speakers and the sole board member who opposed the reversal lashed out Saturday and warned that the majority would be held accountable.
Board member J. Walter Tejada (D) pointedly accused board members John Vihstadt (I) and Libby Garvey (D) of negative campaigning and denigration of the streetcar proposal that had been in the works for more than 15 years.
“This government has failed,” he said. “Citizens who spent time in a multitude of meetings — small meetings, large meetings, medium meetings, public forums, charettes — all wasted because of negative campaigning. ... Our credibility is in really bad shape right now. People put their necks on the line for us and this county government really let them down.”
It was Vihstadt’s reelection Nov. 4, in a campaign that he centered on the worth of the streetcar, that prompted board chairman Jay Fisette (D) and vice chair Mary Hynes (D) to switch their votes from supporting the streetcar to opposing it. Vihstadt’s victory, Fisette said, convinced him that the once-strong community support for the project had evaporated.
The surprise decision enraged Fairfax County officials, who had been counting on the Pike project to enliven the Skyline area of their county, sowed confusion among Pike residents, raised questions about whether an economic or racial divide permeates the county and exacerbated tensions on the Arlington board.
The Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar projects were supposed to prompt redevelopment in the southern part of Arlington County, and that new spending was expected to pay for saving more than 6,000 affordable apartments. County staff is studying what kind of mass transit can replace the streetcar in the area, and whether the affordable housing plans can also be saved.
Juliet Hiznay, former president of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, who said she was speaking for herself, questioned the county board’s commitment to transit-oriented development and long-term planning.
“What kind of message does it send to the community ... if we are to turn our backs on many, many, multiyear planning efforts?” she asked.
Eric Weiner also expressed “disappointment and surprise ... [that] you scuttled this project. Yes, scuttled it, sir and madam. It seems to me if you’ve broken it, you’ve bought it. You’ve now broken the future of economic development along Columbia Pike and [U.S. 1], and my question is, what are you going to do about it? ”
Hynes said the proof of the board’s commitment will be in what it does to create a new plan for the area.
“We’ve allowed ourselves to be fractured as a community, to not understand that as economic development grows, so grows the tax base,” she said, noting that parks, schools, open space, housing and public service networks are all connected to both transit and development. “You cannot take one piece of this puzzle away ... they don’t operate in isolation.”
Fisette said the community should continue to hold the county “and individual board members” responsible for finding a new solution to the land use and transit planning issues along Columbia Pike and in Crystal City.
View a video of the meeting here. Tejada’s comments start about 50 minutes into the recording.