Deep-blue Arlington elects first non-Democrat since 1983, kills off expensive streetcar project

It’s a story we’ve all heard before. In 2006, when economic times were good and the Northern Virginia area was riding high as it always does on cronyism’s coattails, Arlington decided it’d be keen and swell to put a streetcar into a developing area of the city. The purported idea was to allow for more development and less congestion at a rather reasonable cost. Alas, once local lawmakers became enamored of this romantic boondoggle—how charmingly Bay Area of us to have a streetcar!—they lost sight of whether it actually would allow for more development, less congestion, or cost anything within a universe of reasonable. The projected cost has ballooned from about $100 million to half a billion dollars since it was first proposed. Opposition to the streetcar has been growing with its price tag, but lawmakers remained under its powerful spell until Election Day jolted them.

On that day, the city elected its first non-Democrat to office since 1983 in John Vihstadt, a Republican-endorsed Independent candidate and vociferous streetcar critic. He won handily (55-43) over a Democratic opponent, carrying the vast majority of Arlington precincts even though Democratic Sen. Mark Warner earned the “majority of votes in every one of Arlington’s precincts, and took 70.59 percent of Arlington ballots” on the same day. Vihstadt had already won a special election earlier this year, but this is for the full term.

Improbably, the city council got the message from voters, announcing this week it would cancel the project. One Democratic councilwoman, Libby Garvey, deserves credit for stepping up early against the project and endorsing Vihstadt, for which she lost a position on a Democratic Party governing board.

Arlington County on Tuesday abruptly canceled two long-planned streetcar projects that had been hailed by smart-growth advocates as catalysts for development but stirred bitter opposition among residents newly skeptical of government projects.

Despite solid backing from developers, leaders of neighboring Fairfax County and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), the plan to launch streetcars along Columbia Pike and in Crystal City became toxic in Arlington, where elected officials pride themselves on progressive urban planning as well as on building polite consensus…

“How did we arrive at this point? We . . . were caught flat-footed when organized opposition to the streetcar surfaced in just the last year or so,” Fisette said at a sober midday news conference. “We were unable to persuade a majority of voters that a streetcar system is Arlington’s next generation of transit and that we can afford to build it.”

Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit began making noise in 2013, prompting a response group with a less amicable name in Arlington Streetcar NOW. But AST set the tone and had the 400 million bucks worth of broken promises from Arlington leaders on which to base its pitch for a more modern, cheaper, rapid bus system to solve transit problems. There were also the standard shady government dealings you’ll recognize from other ill-conceived projects—a cost-benefit analysis performed by a firm with close and lucrative ties to city government, cost-shifting to other projects to make the streetcar seem cheaper and therefore eligible for federal grant money, and a catalyzing outrageous boondoggle— a $1 million bus stop with heated floors like the bathroom in an Aspen five-star chalet. Problems with D.C.’s H-Street boondoggle streetcar also influenced Arlington voters, so it’s nice to see D.C. can export its cautionary tales instead of just its idiocy.

The council voted 4-1 to kill the project, but that doesn’t mean they’re taking it well, as this exchange between streetcar critic Garvey and board chairman Fisette illustrates:

Garvey said she doesn’t think the streetcar’s cancellation “changes things at all” with her relationships on the County Board. Minutes later, after Fisette and Garvey finished giving interviews, Garvey approached Fisette and said “good job” and offered to shake his hand. Fisette pulled his hand away and said “no thanks” before walking past her.

It’s tough when you have to respond to voters. He needs time to heal. Now that you’ve heard the facts about how much this project would cost and how much voters disliked it, enjoy this quote from streetcar diehard Councilman Walter Tejada:

“Turning away from a modern streetcar system is a dramatic step backwards. Arlington’s credibility in the region will now be adversely affected.”

If you can strike a blow against crazy-expensive, trendy, urban-planning transit projects in Arlington, Va., I have hope for stopping boondoggles everywhere. What Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit is begging to be started in your town?

Front-page photo credit to tammihetherington on Flickr.