A Streetcar Route Drives Typically Calm Arlington County into Conflict

The wealthy Virginia county outside Washington, D.C., has been free of the nasty political environment home to its neighbors – until now. Causing the controversy is a proposed streetcar, which nearly a dozen cities are building.
August 2013

For the past generation, politics in Arlington County, Va., have proceeded with a civility and gentleness notably absent in the other suburban jurisdictions around Washington, D.C. County board members in Arlington have rarely raised their voices to one another in public; important decisions have usually been made on unanimous 5-0 votes; and mild-mannered politicians who would have been outmaneuvered in the nastier environment of the bigger suburban counties have experienced success here.

Arlington’s elected officials long ago came up with a self-satisfied name for the rules by which the political system plays. They call these rules “the Arlington Way.” Critics have complained that the Arlington Way consists mostly of backroom deals where divisiveness is hidden from public view. Nevertheless, the result has been a quiet outward consensus that has played well to most of the community. While practicing the Arlington Way, the county has seen decades of prosperity and a building boom whose careful management has won national awards for sensible civic planning.

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But in the last year or so, the Arlington Way has begun to unravel. Members challenge one another at meetings now. They have made open accusations of conflict of interest. And some of the blogs that comment on county politics have developed a vicious streak unlike anything longtime residents have seen before. “Arlington is the last place you would expect to see this happening,” says Christopher Zimmerman, a senior member of the county board.

It has all happened largely in connection with one issue. What issue could be powerful enough to undo such a deeply entrenched tradition of civility? The answer might surprise you. It’s a streetcar.

More specifically, it’s a five-mile streetcar line that would run along Columbia Pike, a main commercial thoroughfare in the southern half of the county that one transit expert recently described as “a neglected, deteriorating auto-oriented corridor.” Columbia Pike is choked with bus traffic right now; supporters of the streetcar argue that their project would relieve some of the congestion, add an upscale feel to the whole area, generate new residential and commercial development, and make possible thousands of units of affordable housing.

The Arlington streetcar campaign is similar to efforts being undertaken in quite a few cities around the country. There are at least 10 urban streetcar lines currently under construction or in the design stage. Dallas, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City are all building them. Seattle had so much success with its first streetcar that it is now developing a second one. Cincinnati’s streetcar plans are the centerpiece of efforts to revive the close-in Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, long blighted but now drawing an influx of middle-class newcomers.

In Arlington, the arguments for a streetcar are as much psychological as they are statistical. The new vehicles wouldn’t go much faster, if at all, than the current buses. They wouldn’t have a dedicated travel lane, so they would jostle for road space along with existing traffic. And they wouldn’t take many automobiles off the road -- even the most ardent streetcar backers admit that.

What the backers say instead is that the look and feel of the streetcars would lift South Arlington into a whole new economic development category. Developers, reassured by the fixed tracks, would sense a permanence that would encourage them to invest their money in a hitherto underdeveloped part of the county. Riders who avoid or detest Columbia Pike’s buses would be given a glitzy alternative.

It all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Why not give it a try? Well, there’s one possible reason. The five-mile streetcar line would cost at least $250 million, and more likely upward of $300 million. That’s not an impossible burden in a relatively rich county like Arlington, but it’s money that could be used at least in small part on education, health care and environmental improvement.

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By last summer, the streetcar controversy had spread beyond the confines of Arlington government and become something of a public cause among urban planners and developers. Both the Sierra Club and Smart Growth America thought the streetcar would be a fine investment, while a more localized group of homeowners and activists decried the project’s cost.

The opposition might have dwindled away -- the county board had voted for the streetcar unanimously several times in a study process dating back to 2006 -- had it not been for the arrival of a new board member in early 2012. The new member was Libby Garvey, a longtime Arlington school board official who had shown no previous expertise in transportation matters but who quickly took up the streetcar as her issue. “I cannot see how a streetcar is anything more than a bus with tracks and overhead wires,” she said.

Criticizing some of the board members personally, Garvey created an un-Arlington-like political storm. But she denies having done anything to coarsen local politics. “The truth is coarse,” she says. “The Arlington Way at times has a hypocritical side to it, and that came out quite clearly with the streetcar.” She believes the public meetings held over the past few years have actually been staged events meant to discourage the expression of opposing views.

Assisted by a local citizens’ group, Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, Garvey began arguing that what South Arlington really needed was not a streetcar but a “modern, premium” bus fleet, also known as bus rapid transit (BRT), that would deliver equivalent service at a cost one-fifth to one-half as much as the projected streetcar budget. Garvey’s allies referred to the streetcar supporters as “bus snobs”: affluent urbanists, mostly from outside the neighborhood, who felt it was beneath them to ride an ordinary bus the way thousands of South Arlington residents had done for years.

These arguments were enough to generate a grass-roots demand for a countywide referendum to determine the future of the streetcar; the majority on the board quickly refused to consider it. “Moving forward with a modern streetcar is our stated policy,” said county board Chairman J. Walter Tejada, “and that’s what we’re committed to doing. We can repeat it many times, but nothing’s going to change.”

So that’s where it stands at the moment: The streetcar is going forward, even though it was set back this spring when the U.S. Transportation Department refused to come through on a $75 million grant. Opponents have vowed to maintain their push for a referendum, but their chances of getting one appear slim.

In truth, there are arguments to be made on both sides. The benefits of the investment are, in the last analysis, mostly intangible. They reside in the belief that 10 shiny streetcars will be a developmental catalyst for a drab and unappealing highway and its adjoining neighborhoods. This is entirely possible, but it is a chancy proposition to risk roughly $300 million on. On the other hand, a $100 million investment in BRT might be an even worse bet. In the end, as streetcar supporters like to say, a bus is still a bus. If the county board hadn’t approved streetcars, it’s unlikely the opposition would now be touting premium buses as a consolation prize.

Beyond the merits of the issue, the whole debate raises the deeper question of why all this is happening now, why a deeply rooted brand of local politics seems to have fallen victim to a five-mile streetcar line.

When a political system breaks apart in a local community, it’s usually a good bet that geography has something to do with it. That’s the case here. Arlington is the geographically smallest self-governing county in America, less than 30 square miles, but it divides demographically into two very distinct regions. The northern part of the county is where the prosperity is, with whole neighborhoods of homes selling for more than $1 million apiece.

Much of the prosperity has been driven in recent years by the presence of Metro, the D.C. area rail transit system, whose Orange Line contains six stations running right down the middle of North Arlington. In the past two decades those transit tracks have generated tens of millions of dollars’ worth of development -- luxury condominiums, office buildings filled with government contractors, and dining and entertainment districts that attract visitors from all over the metropolitan area.

Meanwhile, South Arlington, without attractive transportation choices, has mostly stagnated. Its property values have remained relatively low while those everywhere else in the county have leaped up. And though it isn’t often said publicly, the streetcar line has represented South Arlington’s dream of catching up to a neighbor it regards as not only rich but insensitive to the broader community’s needs.

But there is more to this episode than geography. The stop-the-streetcar movement is a coalition of groups that don’t have much in common, or at least didn’t realize they did. There are liberals who don’t want money siphoned off from social programs; conservatives (few but noisy) who see any major spending commitment as unnecessary; and another faction who simply have come to dislike the county board’s habit of reaching major decisions in friendly caucuses behind the scenes. Together, they are an unwieldy but assertive force challenging the comfortable way in which the county has done business for decades. Helping stir the pot, of course, are social media and the blogosphere, which make it possible to challenge the elected leadership in a way that would have been impossible even a decade ago.

What may be most important is that local politics has changed, and seems unlikely to change back anytime soon. Political conflict that was long submerged under the peaceful aegis of the Arlington Way has now broken into the open, and bottling it up again will be difficult. That may be a shame, but it was also probably inevitable that some issue would surface and break the spell, even one as seemingly benign as streetcars.

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