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Columbia Pike Streetcar: Democratic County Board Candidates Stake Out Positions

The Arlington County Democratic Committee hosted the first of several debates Wednesday night.

From left: Democratic Arlington County Board candidates Peter Fallon, Cord Thomas and Alan Howze. Photo by Jason Spencer
From left: Democratic Arlington County Board candidates Peter Fallon, Cord Thomas and Alan Howze. Photo by Jason Spencer

Two of the three declared Democratic candidates for Arlington County Board — Peter Fallon and Alan Howze — said Wednesday night that they support a planned streetcar for the Columbia Pike corridor, while a third candidate — Cord Thomas — said he did not.

The three were asked early in a debate Wednesday night about transportation and transit for Columbia Pike and Crystal City in a question that didn't specifically mention the streetcar but obviously implied it. They are competing for the Democratic nomination in a race to fill the soon-to-be vacant seat on the Arlington County Board currently held by Chris Zimmerman

The planned $250 million Columbia Pike streetcar system would connect Pentagon City with the Bailey's Crossroads area of Fairfax County.

"As a member of the Planning Commission and Transportation Commission … I supported the streetcar initiative. I still do. Let me be clear about that: I still do," said Peter Fallon, a tax accountant who lives in Donaldson Run. He was wearing an "I Like the Pike" button from one of the past streetcar planning efforts.

The streetcar has the support of a majority of local elected officials as the best system to help move as many as 30,000 people along Columbia Pike daily over the next 20 years. Despite years of planning, opposition to the project has grown thanks in part to an organized group of streetcar opponents.

Fallon said he still had questions about the project's true costs, whether Arlington could go after more outside funding or, perhaps, a public-private partnership.

"I still have unanswered questions that I would want answered before voting as a board member," he told Patch. "But I come to the table accepting that the streetcar is the preferred alternative for that community and has been the basis for planning decisions."

Howze, a management consultant for IBM who lives in the Highland Park-Overlee Knolls neighborhood, cited the economic benefits Arlington enjoys thanks to the Orange Line and the Blue Line. Transit has served as an engine for growth that's helped pay for schools, for instance, and affordable housing initiatives, he said.

"I support the Columbia Pike streetcar," he said. "If it's a project done right, I think it can have benefits for our community."

Howze said he did not start off supporting the concept, but came to do so after examining all other options. He described transportation, economic development and affordable housing as three legs to the same metaphorical stool.

"It's important to make the investment for our community to make our community stronger," he said.

And given that Arlington County plans to spend $2.5 billion over the next decade on major capital projects, he said, the streetcar is a "significant" investment but not a "make-or-break" investment for the county. Howze estimated the streetcar would cost up to 15 percent of Arlington's capital spending forecast over the next 10 years. 

Thomas, an entrepreneur who lives in Nauck, said pointedly that he was "not a fan" of the streetcar. He cited the county's now infamous $1 million bus stop and potential cost overruns on an aquatics center and said such things diminished the public's confidence in government.

"We haven't earned the confidence of people yet to take on a project of that magnitude," he said. "A long articulated bus could get the job done and we could do it tomorrow."

Thomas is a partner with Elevation Burger but perhaps is best known as the founder of EnviroCab, which he eventually sold. He once had his EnviroCab office on Columbia Pike, and said the disruption that putting in a streetcar would drive some mom-and-pops there out of business.

"I'm not opposed to ever talking about the streetcar," he told Patch.

But, "Any sound business wants its customers to have confidence," he said. "And the voters are our customers."

How hot is the issue? The candidates at times had to talk over a fire alarm and automated voice asking people to leave the building — though that was actually triggered by a water pipe.

The Arlington County Democratic Committee hosted the debate as part of its regular meeting Wednesday night in Ballston at the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association building.

At least four more debates are coming up before the party holds its open caucus on Jan. 30 and Feb. 1.

Candidates have until Jan. 20 to declare their intention to seek the party's nomination.

Tara-Leeway Heights resident John Vihstadt, a Republican, has announced he will seek the GOP and Green Party nominations for the seat Zimmerman is leaving.

Vihstadt has called for halting the planned Columbia Pike streetcar system.

Libertarian Evan Bernick is also running.

Melissa Pittard January 10, 2014 at 08:50 AM
I thought John Vihstadt was running as an Independent.
Jason Spencer (Editor) January 10, 2014 at 09:44 AM
His announcement says he's running as an independent, but he identifies himself as a Republican and that he's seeking the GOP and Green Party nominations.
Hawa Coulibaly January 10, 2014 at 09:54 AM
I am a democrat that will be voting for the republican/ independent :)
Dodge January 10, 2014 at 11:13 PM
Alan Howze has my vote!
Lyle Lanley January 26, 2014 at 10:13 PM
Schools and roads are more important than the streetcar. Democrats have turned their backs on the needs of the residents and are listening to the wrong opinions. I will support Thomas and the Republican candidates if need be.

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