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Candidates For Arlington County Board Stake Out Their Positions On Streetcar

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Columbia Pike in Arlington would look quite a bit different with a streetcar line running its length.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/smart_growth/7852063132
Columbia Pike in Arlington would look quite a bit different with a streetcar line running its length.

The special election for the Arlington County Board is taking shape as parties select candidates.

The controversial streetcar system along Columbia Pike is at the center of a growing storm in Arlington — one that's now become the centerpiece of a special election to replace retiring County Board member Chris Zimmerman. Over the weekend, Democrats selected management consultant Alan Howze to be their candidate. He says opposition to the streetcar reminds him of opposition to the Metro from an earlier era.

"The opposition then said well let's just run buses down Wilson Boulevard, and buses can do the same job for cheaper," Howze says. "That's exactly what we are hearing today from opponents."

Howze says streetcars will attract economic development while fostering environmental sustainability and fighting against traffic gridlock. Like other supporters, Howze says a streetcar system would attract more riders than enhanced bus service.

"Just as people make consumer choices about what sort of car they drive, what sort of shampoo they use, people make consumer choices about what sort of method they will use for transportation," he says.

Independent candidate John Vihstadt has the backing of the Green Party, Republicans and some prominent Democrats. He takes issue with the argument that streetcars would attract what many supporters call "choice riders."

"I think it's a rather elitist attitude to say that, 'Well, certain people and certain demographic elements wouldn't deign to ride the bus,'" Vihstadt says.

The federal government estimates the system will cost more than $300 million. Vihstadt says that's money that could be used to improve intersections, improve bus service, add bicycle lanes and make streets more pedestrian friendly.

"All of those are going to be compromised to some degree by spending such a large percentage of our transportation funds on a streetcar," Vihstadt says.

After Zimmerman officially steps down later this month, the Arlington court system will schedule the special election, which is likely to be in April.

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