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Why Is Arlington Considering Slashing Its Budget For Alternative Transit?

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Arlington has a reputation for promoting car-free transit. So why is it considering making cuts to those initiatives?
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Arlington has a reputation for promoting car-free transit. So why is it considering making cuts to those initiatives?

Updated 8 a.m., March 5.

Arlington County leaders are considering cutting money out of a fund for bicycling and pedestrian improvements, angering biking and walking advocates who contend that the relatively small budget savings would set back efforts to make roads safer for all users.

At the request of the county board, Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan proposed a list of optional budget cuts from various programs and departments designed to save $4 million out of a total budget of $1.1 billion; the “complete streets” program could lose $800,000 from a decal fee fund designated for the improvement of crosswalks, sidewalks, bike lanes, signage, and pedestrian refuges. Donnellan also is separately proposing the elimination of one of the two positions in Arlington’s bike planning office.

Five years ago the county increased the decal fee on car owners to $33 to specifically fund “complete streets” and other progressive transportation initiatives, such as Capital Bikeshare. Over the decades Arlington has earned a reputation for providing commuters alternatives to the automobile, minimizing traffic congestion on its main arterial roads despite adding millions of square feet of office space. But the proposed cuts have transit-bike-walk advocates feeling betrayed.

“The programs that are currently funded by the decal fee are programs that really help increase bike ridership in Arlington, and increased ridership is really the key to safety,” said Gillian Burgess, the chair of Arlington’s bicycle advisory committee, whose members are appointed by county officials.

Burgess said Donnellan did not consult the committee before submitting the optional cuts to the board.

“This is incredibly pennywise and pound foolish. Supporting bicycling is a way to get people around Arlington County in a way that is very cheap to the county. Not only are these projects individually very cheap, the impact of a bicycle on our city streets is much less than a car,” she said.

Donnellan was not available for an interview, but deputy county manager Mark Schwartz said those who oppose the possible cuts will have an opportunity to influence the final budget decisions.

“There is going to be public hearings held by the board, and a series of work sessions with the board where we will all get to probe and ask further questions,” he said. “The manager’s budget fully funds all bike and pedestrian programs, but the board asked for options to create a pot of money that the board might use in some other way, for schools or other county programs.”

Board member Jay Fisette, a long-time advocate of transit and smart-growth initiatives, said he would like to avoid taking any money out of the "complete streets" program. The proposed $800,000 cut would still leave $4 million in the program, however.

“I know there are a lot of people in this community that use those trails, use the on-street lanes, and use the Capital Bikeshare. We need to hear from them, and we need to decide how this stacks up relative to the other priorities in our community,” Fisette said.

“Arlington is a leader nationally in these transit alternatives — bike, walk, transit — and we can’t undermine those progressive values and the progress we’ve made. That said, last fall we asked the manager to give us some optional cuts for cutting the budget by 1 percent,” he said.

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