Five years ago this week – Nov. 18, 2014 – County Board Chairman Jay Fisette stood somewhat grimly in front of a microphone and TV cameras to announce that Arlington officials were abandoning plans for a streetcar system in the Columbia Pike corridor.
The action came two weeks after Arlington voters had done what might once have been deemed nearly impossible: Rejected a Democratic candidate for County Board in a general election – an election fought out largely over whether the county government’s aspirations to be a “world-class community” had outstripped the resources of residents to pay for them.
Other projects decried by critics as gold-plated – the Artisphere arts center, Long Bridge Park aquatics center and pricey transit stops along Columbia Pike – also were either abandoned or scaled back after 2014. But it was the decision to scrap the streetcar that proved the biggest civic and political earthquake in a generation.
Ending the streetcar “was the single most painful decision I made in 20 years” on the County Board, Fisette said in a recent interview. “I always believed, and still do, it was a good project.”
But in the aftermath of the 2014 election of independent John Vihstadt to the County Board, Fisette felt he had no choice but to switch sides and vote to kill off the streetcar. It is an action he stands by.
“In light of the political dynamics at play at that time, and loss of significant community support, I do not regret my decision,” said Fisette, who retired from office in 2017. “I believe it was in the best long-term interest of the county and community.”
The decision of Fisette (and board colleague Mary Hynes) to reverse their previous support for the 5-mile-long, $300-million-plus streetcar proposal was a moment for County Board member Libby Garvey to savor. It was Garvey who for several years had had waged a lonely battle against it – often finding herself ridiculed for not going along with the majority, and having to part ways with county Democrats for a while after she backed Vihstadt’s insurgent candidacy in 2014.
Garvey stands by her views, and says one close-by example has vindicated them.
“I still believe ending the streetcar project was the right thing to do,” she said. “A look at how the streetcar in D.C. is functioning, and its cost, is a good confirmation that Arlington’s decision was the right one.”
The streetcar (opponents labeled it a “trolley”) was conceived not simply to move people along the Columbia Pike corridor from Pentaton City west to Skyline in Fairfax County. It also was designed to act as an economic-development spur for communities in South Arlington.
The proposal had been championed by County Board member Chris Zimmerman. Ironically, it was Zimmerman’s decision to resign from the board in early 2014 – to join a smart-growth organization – that indirectly led to the project’s demise. Vihstadt rode a wave of community discontent over a local government increasingly seen as elitist and out of touch to a special-election victory that spring over the Democrats’ anointed successor to Zimmerman, Alan Howze.
That Vihstadt defeated Howze in the special election was brushed off in some corners; the political establishment in the county fully expected Howze to win the rematch that November. He did not.
But even with Vihstadt on the board, streetcar opponents only had two votes, and needed three. They ended up with four: Garvey, Vihstadt, Fisette and Hynes (who then was serving as Arlington representative to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority).
That left Walter Tejada, an ally of Zimmerman’s on many issues, as the lone supporter on the County Board. Five years after the fact, Tejada believes that killing off the streetcar was a “profound disappointment.”
“Obviously, I have not changed my point of view – it was a terrific project that would have been great,” he told the Sun Gazette, offering a reminder that the proposal came with safeguards and dedicated funding to retain and enhance affordable housing in the Columbia Pike corridor, rather than relying on the “happy talk of inclusion and diversity” to create more housing.
(Tejada also said county officials further dropped the ball on transportation in the corridor, as the bus-rapid-transit [BRT] alternative pushed by Garvey and others never quite materialized. “Whatever happened to 'instead of the streetcar, BRT can be done faster and at a fraction of the cost'?” he asked.)
Vihstadt, who ran for office in opposition to the streetcar, has a different view. He calls the board’s action putting a stake in its heart “absolutely the right decision.”
“Streetcar boosters claimed the Pike would stagnate without it, yet the opposite has occurred,” said Vihstadt.
“All of this development has come with minimal displacement to diverse and established communities,” Vihstadt told the Sun Gazette. “Meanwhile, premium transit is coming to the Pike, though more slowly than I’d like. Infrastructure improvements, including new transit stops, pedestrian-safety improvements and utility undergrounding, continue.”
The decision to scrap the streetcar project resulted in a rift between Arlington leaders and their elected counterparts in Fairfax County, who had agreed to foot 20 percent of the local cost of the project in expectation it would provide an economic kickstart to the Skyline and Baileys Crossroads areas.
On the day of Fisette’s announcement, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova declared the decision to kill off the transit project “short-sighted,” which was perhaps an intentionally laconic public response to not further roil the waters – in private, though, Fairfax officials were reported to be livid.
Not livid, however, were members of the Arlington Green Party, which early on had joined the battle against the streetcar.
Five year’s later, the party’s leader has no regrets.
“This was the right decision,” said John Reeder. “A trolley would only have fueled even more gentrification and strangled traffic flow up and down the Pike . . . [and] would have absorbed many millions of dollars of county transportation funds that now go to our ART bus and to support improvement in Metrorail.”
Had supporters of the streetcar project been able to save it, it would likely be in operation today. But many are looking to the future, not wallowing in the past.
“We are excited to see development and growth on Columbia Pike continue to increase,” said Kim Klingler, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO).
Klinger, like Vihstadt, points to transportation improvements (albeit improvements arriving slower than first promised) and economic growth, which may accelerate given the corridor’s relative proximity to Amazon’s incoming “HQ2” in Crystal City.
Klingler suggests Columbia Pike even could be emerging as an incubator of next-generation thinking on transportation.
“CPRO is excited to see the community come together to support innovative start-ups and county initiatives – electric shuttles, circulators, autonomous vehicles,” she said.
(One idea that didn’t fly, literally or figuratively: A proposal by an entrepreneur to develop and install a gondola system whisking above traffic in the corridor. The pitch was listened to politely and then never discussed again.)
Meanwhile, Fairfax County dusted itself off and has been in the forefront of planning a new bus-rapid-transit system for the Route 7 corridor between Alexandria and Tysons, which could help give Skyline and Baileys Crossroads the economic boost a streetcar might have.
That Route 7 project, however, is years in the future and could end up being more costly than the streetcar effort.
“It’s very expensive and we need to find funding for it,” said Fairfax Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason). “We still need to determine where it would go and how to pay for it.”
The Route 7 bus-rapid-transit project would skirt Arlington’s southern border.
Despite the acrimony over the streetcar project and the decision to kill it off, the transient nature of Arlington’s population means that every year brings new residents who have never heard of the contretemps.
For those who do remember the decision to kill off the streetcar, and perhaps still bear some scars from the battle, they can “make their own determination whether it was right or wrong,” Tejada said.
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Of the five members of the Arlington County Board in 2014, only Garvey remains in office. Fisette retired in 2017 and a year later helped launch DMV Strategic Advisors, a consulting firm. Hynes retired from board service in 2015 and currently serves on the Commonwealth Transportation Board. Tejada also departed in 2015 and currently is a board member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Vihstadt was defeated for re-election in 2018 by Democrat Matt de Ferranti, a race in which the streetcar controversy played little part.