Thrust-and-parry, thrust-and-parry, thrust-and-parry: Just another day in the life of combatants in Arlington’s streetcar saga.
The topic of disagreement du jour: Whether the county government should funnel big bucks to a consultant for public-relations and outreach services for the project.
In announcing a project-management contract with Parsons Transportation Group in late May, Arlington and Fairfax officials said they planned to spend $7 million to $8 million for a wide range of services. Left unsaid in the announcement was the plan to spend upward of $650,000 in public-education efforts during the first year of the contract.
The dollar figure came to light in written answers provided by county staff to a number of questions about the streetcar project that were submitted by County Board member John Vihstadt. Vihstadt’s landslide victory in an April 8 special election has been attributed, in part, to voter anger over big-ticket county spending priorities, including the streetcar.
Those who support the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar projects say it is a prudent use of funds.
“Our education efforts are designed to translate [technical documents] for lay people, which we hope will help Arlingtonians to better understand the value of the streetcar project to our community,” said County Board Vice Chairman Mary Hynes, who supports the transit initiative and serves as an alternate Virginia representative on the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
In responses to queries from the Sun Gazette, neither Hynes nor County Board Chairman Jay Fisette specifically addressed the need to spend $650,000 on public relations – including development of a new logo – although Fisette said the figure was the maximum that would be spent, and could be lower.
Opponents were quick to pounce.
“We should not be wasting $650,000 on PR,” said County Board member Libby Garvey, who with Vihstadt opposes the Columbia Pike streetcar project.
Garvey and others have suggested that the idea Arlington residents were uninformed about the streetcar after a full decade of discussion is ludicrous, given that county-government staff are busy churning out print and multimedia materials touting the project’s perceived benefits.
A recent article in The Citizen, the county-government newsletter mailed to all households, discussed the streetcar in glowing terms but failed to mention that two of five County Board members prefer an upgraded bus network on Columbia Pike.
“Lots of public-communications efforts have been made already, and voters have made it quite clear they don’t want a streetcar,” she said.
Vihstadt was equally dismissive.
“Just as Ford couldn’t salvage the Edsel, a taxpayer-funded, $650,000 public-relations blitz won’t prop up the sagging popularity of the streetcar,” he said.
Fisette opted to frame the issue as similar to a debate raging at the national level, over the future of health care.
“During the last year, the effort to derail the streetcar has been far more aggressive than our effort to explain and defend it – and we must do better,” he said. “Just as President Obama needs to explain the benefits of health-care reform five years later, we must explain the benefits of the streetcar.”
(That may not have been an analogy to soothe the nerves of pro-streetcar forces: Despite massive public-relations outreach from the president on down, the independent Pew Research Center in its most recent polling found opposition to the Affordable Care Act at 55 percent, an all-time high.)
Despite the pummeling he, Hynes and board member Walter Tejada have taken on the issue from those opposed to the streetcar project, Fisette appears undaunted by new criticism over the spending on public relations.
“This is a complex project,” he said, one that “requires a serious communications and outreach effort.”
Garvey said opponents of the streetcar project didn’t have $650,000 to counter the government’s efforts, but did have a Web site: www.sensibletransit.org.
“The site is run by volunteers and may not be as spiffy as the taxpayer-supported county Web site, but they will find there good, solid information,” she said.
(The site is operated by Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. A site run by the pro-streetcar Arlington Streetcar Now group can be found at http://streetcarnow.org.)
Voters ultimately may have the final say: Vihstadt is up for re-election in November against Democrat Alan Howze, who supports the streetcar but has wavered and called for a referendum since he was trounced in April. Next year, the seats of Hynes and Tejada are up; if anti-streetcar activists can get Vihstadt re-elected and then defeat either Hynes or Tejada (or both), the project could be brought to a standstill.
Tejada, who has supported the project largely because it promises to maintain the stock of affordable housing in the Pike corridor, said that if anti-streetcar activists can wrest a third County Board seat away from the pro-streetcar cohort, he would have to live with the consequences.
“If I’m in the minority, I’m in the minority – that’s how it is,” Tejada said.