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Should Arlington Streetcar Proposal Be Put Up For Referendum?

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Columbia Pike is currently served by the 16 bus line, and critics of the streetcar argue expanding bus service is a cheaper alternative.
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Columbia Pike is currently served by the 16 bus line, and critics of the streetcar argue expanding bus service is a cheaper alternative.

A growing chorus of elected officials are now calling for a referendum to let voters weigh in on a controversial proposal to build a $310 million streetcar on Columbia Pike. The path to the ballot box, however, is complicated.

One way voters might end up casting a ballot is if Arlington leaders decide to borrow money for the project using a bond referendum. But advocates for the program say that would be a terrible idea, putting the streetcar project in competition with schools and other capital needs.

"We would have to actually take money from schools so that we could vote on whether that's a good idea," says John Snyder, leader of a group called Streetcar Now. "Nobody wants to do that, so why would we create this artificial scheme just so we could vote it down?"

Snyder says county leaders should finance the plan using commercial real estate taxes, which does not involve putting the project on the ballot. County leaders could try to organize an advisory ballot, but Snyder says that wouldn't be fair to other transportation projects.

"Do we want to pave a street in Country Club Hills? Do we need to have a referendum on that? And if not what is the principle on which we decide that some things need a referendum and other things don't?" he says.

Opponents of streetcars have long called for a vote on the issue, and a growing chorus of supporters are saying voters should be able to express their opinion on the issue — even if the path to the ballot box could be a complicated one.

"The problem with an advisory referendum is that counties in Virginia, unlike cities in Virginia, don't have the power to put on the ballot an advisory referendum, and they would have to be granted that power by a new law," says Peter Roussellot, leader of a group known as Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit.

He says the advisory ballot would be a difficult sell in Richmond, and the idea that County Board members would put a bond on the ballot seems unlikely.

"The County Board has never committed to using general obligation bond financing for any part of the construction of the streetcar because they've never had any plan for how they are going to pay for it, and it is certainly conceivable that they won't use it," Roussellot says.

Ultimately, though, supporters and opponents say if the County Board really wants to put a referendum on the ballot, they'll find a way to do it.

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