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Special Election In Arlington Prompts Debate Over Columbia Pike Streetcar Plan

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Arlington County officials hope to see a streetcar run down Columbia Pike, but some residents and candidates aren't so sure.
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Arlington County officials hope to see a streetcar run down Columbia Pike, but some residents and candidates aren't so sure.

In their final debate before two deciding caucus votes scheduled for Thursday and Saturday, the three Democratic candidates running for their party’s nomination to fill a vacant seat on the county board laid out their positions on one of the most divisive issues in the race: the future of the $300 million Columbia Pike streetcar project.

Candidates Peter Fallon, Alan Howze, and Cord Thomas were asked to explain how Arlington might preserve affordable housing units along Columbia Pike because real estate prices are expected to climb after the streetcar is built. The county’s current policy is “zero displacement,” to replace any unit temporarily removed through the streetcar construction and ensuing redevelopment of real estate.

"You can replace units but you can't replace people. And when you tear down these buildings and you tear down the existing affordable housing, people aren't going to wait for you to build the next. They move on. They leave," said Cord Thomas, the only one of the three Democrats who opposes the streetcar plan.

“What I see is a construction pit. What I see is five years of a big hole, a lot of dirt up on the businesses and on the buildings, a lot of orange cones everywhere. How many businesses are going to do well with that?” Thomas added.

Whoever wins the caucuses is expected to face in a special election in April the independent candidate John Vihstadt, who opposes the streetcar plan. The winner of the special election will succeed long time board member and transit advocate Chris Zimmerman, who retired from politics to take a job with a smart growth advocacy group in Washington.

A majority on the all Democrat Arlington County Board support the Columbia Pike streetcar, so a Thomas or Vihstadt win would not swing the board into opposition. But the attention the issue is receiving in this special election speaks to its controversial nature: significant numbers of Arlington residents are raising questions about the project’s cost, the lack of federal funding this far, and the intention of the current board to avoid a bond referendum in which voters potentially could block the project’s funding.

“The people are coming. I don’t want them in cars. We need a transit upgrade and we need high-quality transit,” said Fallon. “I have unanswered questions. We do need outside money and there is money through the transportation bill from the state, and we need to find a way for a dedicated funding source for the operating subsidy so it doesn’t compete with the general fund.”

“When I looked at the alternatives I thought that the streetcar is an investment that, when managed correctly, would not only benefit the residents along the Pike and in Crystal City, but actually benefits all of Arlington,” said Howze. “It has lower life cycle costs than the bus alternatives. It has higher carrying capacity to meet the demand that is coming to the Pike. You have higher ridership on a fixed rail line than you do on buses, and you get a permanency that drives additional growth from having that fixed development.”

The three candidates all referenced the lessons learned by Arlington’s past investment in Metro’s Blue and Orange Line which led to escalating property values and the displacement of residents.

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