Home Transportation Arlington Board Rejects Referendum, Puts Out Videos Explaining Benefits of Streetcar...

Arlington Board Rejects Referendum, Puts Out Videos Explaining Benefits of Streetcar System

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Good news for those of us who are not fans of referenda as a method of governing (see here for my thinking on this subject). Also see the comments section for statements by Arlington County Board Democratic members Jay Fisette, Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes on why they oppose the referendum idea.

The majority of the Arlington County Board today refused to hold a public vote on the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar projects, saying they do not have the legal authority to order an advisory vote, and any other option would require them to use local homeowners’ taxes, which they do not want to do.

Also, see the videos below explaining the many, many reasons why a streetcar system makes sense for Arlington County.

  • From the Arlington County Democratic Committee:

    Dear Arlington Democrats,

    The three Democratic members of the Arlington County Board announced at this afternoon’s County Board meeting that they do not support a referendum on the Columbia Pike Streetcar, providing thoughtful explanations for their views. All three committed to constructing the modern streetcar project without homeowner-funded general obligation bonds. The statements from County Board Chairman Jay Fisette, County Board Vice Chairman Mary Hynes, and County Board Member J. Walter Tejada are provided below.

    Jay Fisette

    I want to start today by addressing a question that has been out there in our community for some weeks – should we hold a referendum on the streetcar? Many people are passionate about this issue – on both sides. My colleagues and I have heard from many of you, directly, and we respect your views. Each of us on this Board has taken your questions and concerns very seriously.

    We have given so much thought to this question. We’ve consulted with the County Attorney and had lots of thoughtful conversations with lots of people.

    I understand the impulse to put the streetcar to a vote. Building a modern streetcar system is the biggest transit project this County has undertaken since Metro. Fairfax is our partner in the Columbia Pike segment of the planned 7.4-mile route, but Arlington will be responsible for the lion’s share of the costs – and reap the majority of the benefits – of this project.

    And because it is such a large and ambitious transportation investment, streetcar has generated debate and lots of scrutiny, and that’s a good thing. That is the Arlington Way.

    And after careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that I do not support a referendum on streetcar. Let me explain why.

    Under Virginia law, the County Board cannot hold an up-or-down vote on streetcar – a referendum question must be tied to a vote on General Obligation bonds – and it is my commitment that WE WILL USE ZERO HOMEOWNER-FINANCED GENERAL OBLIGATION BONDS to build the streetcar. To put a streetcar bond question on the ballot would violate that basic principle that a majority of this Board has long embraced and remains committed to – streetcar will be built using designated transportation funding, not by raising homeowner’s property taxes.

    Let me be clear: I am committed to streetcar, but not at any cost. I will support the building of the streetcar only if it does not require Arlington homeowners to take on bond debt to pay for it. The County has a plan to leverage federal, state, regional and local commercial funds that are dedicated to new transportation projects to pay for the streetcar’s construction.

    That plan includes ZERO homeowner-financed General Obligation Bonds — ZERO.

    I will walk away from the project rather than violate that pledge.

    But at its core, my opposition to a referendum is based on my firm belief that this issue has been decided by our community. We have spent years discussing and studying and analyzing the streetcar and its expected impact on this County that we all love. The Columbia Pike community first recommended studying high-capacity transit for the Pike in 2002. Many, many public meetings – and votes by both this Board and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors – have been held since then.

    The time has come to act, to move forward without delay to build a streetcar system that I know will benefit all Arlington. Here are the facts:

    A combined streetcar-bus system is the only transit option that can provide the capacity we need to handle the growth in population and jobs coming to the neighborhoods along the 7.4-mile streetcar route.

    Over the next 30 years, 65 percent of this County’s expected population growth, and 44% of its expected job growth, will be along the streetcar route. Transit ridership along the streetcar route will more than double to about 60,000 daily trips – 62% of those trips will use the workhorse modern streetcar vehicles. No possible bus-only system can handle that ridership growth. A modern streetcar will ease congestion along these heavily traveled corridors.

    A modern streetcar will attract new private investment in these corridors — investment that will benefit our entire County in increased property values and increased tax revenues that will help fund services and infrastructure across Arlington, and help ensure our County’s long term financial sustainability. No bus-only alternative would provide anything like the increased property values and increased tax revenue that we expect to see from streetcar.

    Just as Arlington’s choice to underground the Metro instead of running it down the center of I-66 — at far greater cost and despite much opposition – led to the bustling R-B corridor that we have today, streetcar will give us a much better return on investment. It is key to our efforts to transform Columbia Pike and Route 1, from Pentagon City to Potomac Yard, into more transit-oriented, walkable and livable neighborhoods.

    Streetcar also will make it easier and more comfortable for people to use transit in their daily lives. It will make it easy for residents, workers and visitors to travel from the Skyline area of Fairfax to Crystal City – and to stop along the way, or to connect to the regional metro or commuter rail systems.

    This Board is determined that the streetcar will be built in a cost-effective and timely manner. We will closely oversee this project. Recently, we signed a contract with an experienced firm that has a proven track record of delivering transit systems – including streetcar and light-rail – that requires them to scrub the project for ways to reduce costs and speed-up delivery.

    Streetcar, truly, is Arlington’s next generation of transit. Across the nation, communities are embracing modern streetcars as a far lower-cost alternative to subways and a far more robust, accessible, comfortable, attractive and practical alternative to buses. All Arlington will benefit from joining their ranks.

    Recently, I attended the Intelligent Communities Forum meeting in New York. We made the top 7, losing the prize of most intelligent city in the world to Toronto. I had an extensive conversation with a Toronto City Council member and Chair of their Economic Development and Culture Committee. Toronto is one of North America’s most successful streetcar cities. He expressed great pride in their streetcar system and its planned expansion.

    I ask all my colleagues – on both sides of this issue – to join together and work to make this project a success and a source of pride for our entire community.

    The County needs to do a better job of communicating the clear benefits of the modern streetcar, and we will do better. I would ask Arlington residents to study and learn about the issue – to go beyond the sound bites and give the matter the full consideration that this community always gives important issues.

    Let us join together to fulfill a commitment we have made to our community, and to honor community planning efforts that began more than a decade ago. Let us extend our legacy of smart growth, of tying land use to transportation, a planning approach that has made this community among the most successful, transit-oriented communities in the world.

    Let us join together to keep Arlington competitive, save our streets from gridlock and continue the great work this County has done to build community and strengthen neighborhoods.

    Mary Hynes

    I strongly agree with the Chair that we can address the community’s concerns about streetcar without a referendum.

    In my more than 18 years of public service in Arlington, I have been a passionate advocate for balanced capital investment programs. From the Arlington public schools in the 90s to the County in the ’00s to WMATA in the 2010s, I have consistently pushed and voted for CIPs that focused on three key sustainability principles:

    – taking care of the community’s assets

    – investing in new facilities designed to move our community forward

    – being fiscally responsible.

    From my perspective, this call for a referendum reflects genuine concern by some about the County’s finances, and a worry that, by building the streetcar, we are making commitments that will ultimately prove unaffordable for taxpayers or will hamper achieving other key community priorities like providing additional seats to address Arlington Public School crowding. I worry too about our financial future.

    That’s why I feel so strongly that the generational strategic investment in a streetcar is needed to grow our total economy, providing new revenue to help meet the whole County’s funding needs. The recent streetcar return on investment study demonstrated that building the streetcar will grow our economy far faster and produce three times the revenue that any bus-only solution would produce – providing new funding for schools and the myriad of county services we all rely on. At the same time, this investment can’t be at any cost and I will only support this project if the funding plan excludes home-owner financed general obligation bonds.

    Our record as a Board clearly shows that we take fiscal concerns seriously as we strive to achieve our vision. For example, we have been closely working with APS on funding for additional seats and we learned this morning that the School Board has adopted a CIP and a 2014 bond request that meets their needs and can be successfully integrated into our 10-year CIP. We’ve also had several instances where unacceptable cost increases in long-planned capital projects have required action. As the Board has worked to address these situations, my goal has always been to seek ways to fulfill the community’s vision while carefully managing costs.

    So, when construction bids for the Long Bridge Aquatic, Health and Fitness Center came in higher than expected, the Board directed the Manager to find ways to reduce the cost while still adhering to the community’s vision for the park. When analysis found that the gap was simply too big to close, we put the project on hold. Now, we are seeking ways to further leverage private sector investments to move the project forward. I have one bright line guiding my decision-making – I will not ask Arlington taxpayers for more money to build the facility.

    When the Columbia Pike transit station prototype cost too much, the Board directed the Manager to put that project on hold and look for a more cost effective way to build this important piece of public infrastructure. She found a way to substantially reduce the cost of the stations, bringing the total down by 40 percent. This reduction made the cost of each station comparable to those for other BRT, light rail and streetcar stations across the country and maintained federal, state and local dedicated transportation funding for 94% of the project costs.

    But we did not compromise our vision – the community’s vision — for the Pike. Each station will still accommodate hundreds of riders daily on what is the busiest bus corridor in Virginia, and serve our vision of transforming the Pike into a more transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly “Main Street.”

    The same steps must and will be taken with the streetcar program. I strongly advocated that we bring an experienced program management consultant with significant streetcar construction experience on board. In the coming months, one of Parsons Transportation Group’s first tasks will be to provide an objective review of the program and assess options for cost reduction, including exploring potential public-private partnerships. As we continue to refine our streetcar project, this important review will provide new information and a roadmap for future key decisions.

    This management approach – a bold community vision matched with fiscal responsibility – is one that I take pride in. It doesn’t mean there aren’t missteps along the way, but in Arlington we don’t let ourselves get distracted from our overall goals, and when mistakes are made, we fix them. That is why this County has been able to maintain its Triple-AAA bond rating for so many years. We are one of only 39 counties in the United States to hold this distinction. The rating agencies noted our careful financial management, conservative debt policies and closely monitored expenditure controls as key elements of our coveted rating.

    So to those who now want to put the streetcar up for a referendum vote, “in order for the peoples’ voices to be heard”, I say the voices raising questions about fiscal restraint and sustainability, strategic investment and community process have been heard. Those concerns are helping guide our balanced next steps on the streetcar – project refinement and funding that excludes homeowner funded general obligation bonds. Fundamentally, this is all about expanding our tax base as a way to create a vibrant, diverse future for our entire County.

    J. Walter Tejada

    After listening to the community and carefully evaluating all factors, I have concluded that I cannot support holding a referendum on the County’s planned streetcar system. My reasons are slightly different than my colleagues.

    At the beginning, I was not a strong supporter of this project. I was skeptical and shared the concerns of many in our community who feared the impact the streetcar might have on our diverse residents who now live in the Columbia Pike area. We were concerned that the growth spurred by this investment would mean many of the working class residents who call the Pike home today would not be able to do so in the future.

    But my determination to always strive for a better Arlington motivated me to roll up my sleeves and work hard to find ways to make this project benefit our entire community. And we have taken some truly innovative steps to leverage the benefits of a modern streetcar system to maintain the Pike’s affordability into the future.

    First, our Neighborhoods Plan, adopted in 2013 when I was Board Chairman, calls for sustaining 6,200 units of affordable housing and allows up to 14,000 new residences on the Pike. In order to take advantage of these new opportunities, developers must include significant affordable housing, either through preservation or new construction. I believe this is the strongest commitment that any community has ever made, in this region and perhaps in the nation, to preserving housing along a corridor where a major transit system will be built.

    Bringing a fixed-rail system, such as a modern streetcar, to the Pike will give developers and property owners a powerful incentive to choose to develop under the Neighborhoods Plan. The additional housing, including affordable housing that we will gain, will help ensure that the Pike will continue to be a place where folks of all incomes can live.

    During my Chairmanship last year, I also helped create the Columbia Pike Tax Increment Financing tool, or TIF, which sets aside 25 percent of the additional tax revenue generated by new development and property value appreciation in the revitalization district for affordable housing along the Pike. The remaining 75 percent of this tax revenue growth will help fund future services across the County – including schools.

    A modern streetcar system is also crucial to the success of this plan. As the return on investment study shows, investment in the streetcar will generate up to $735 million in new tax revenues for Arlington over a 30-year period – more than three times the amount generated by enhanced bus. This will directly result in more money for affordable housing. And yes, it will also mean more funds for other County services, including for our great schools.

    But this project is more than just dollars and cents. The streetcar is about making it easier for workers and residents in Arlington to get to their jobs, on a comfortable, efficient transit system that connects their neighborhood to employment centers. It’s about making it easier for residents to do their grocery shopping and run other errands on a system that connects to retail businesses all along the corridor.

    Providing these options is hugely important to the more than 40% of transit riders on the Pike who are in the region’s lowest income group, and who depend on public transit to make living in Arlington affordable. We already have given them a strong bus system, by creating Pike Ride and expanding ART service, and they are looking to us to continue the investment and provide a system that will carry them into the future.

    Those living on and near the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor already understand the value of high-quality, high-capacity rail. Extending Metrorail along Columbia Pike is neither practical nor affordable, but with a modern streetcar system we can create many of the same benefits for a fraction of the cost.

    More than 15 years of community process and decisions and public participation – in the finest Arlington tradition – cannot be reduced into a single referendum question. We owe it to the thousands who have participated in the process, and to those who have planned their lives and personal and business investments around the streetcar system, and to our entire community and future generations of Arlingtonians, to move forward with this important project. There are better ways than a referendum to address concerns some have about this project, and I’m committed to working with the entire community to do that — for all of Arlington.

  • fendertweed

    want to actually get some valid electoral input on such a controversial issue when you can have the Johnny One Notes on the County Board continue to give lip service to the so-called “Arlington Way” while telling those who disagree that they’re just wrong or don’t get it?

    I am no fan of willy-nilly referenda mania but, as with so many issues relating to this subject and the way the Board has ridden so haughtily the past few years, there’s a real odor here.

    This Board’s fear of dissenting views and openness reminds me of the the Vietnam war hawks and how my views on that subject changed after deciding that if they were that afraid of dissent and protest, then there must be something wrong with what they’re trying to protect.

    I feel the same way about this crew.  It’s very unattractive.