Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette, Vice Chair Mary Hynes and Board Member Walter Tejada each announced Tuesday that they do not favor holding a referendum on the County’s planned 7.4-mile streetcar system, according to a news release from the county.
The cost of the proposed streetcar is $358 million.
“After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that I do not support a referendum on streetcar,” Fisette said during Tuesday’s June Recessed County Board Meeting, according to the news release. Hynes and Tejada echoed that conclusion.
Under Virginia law, Fisette noted, the County does not have the authority to put an advisory referendum on the ballot. A streetcar referendum would have to be a vote on a General Obligation bond to help finance the project. Such a referendum would violate the Board majority’s commitment to Arlingtonians that no homeowner-financed General Obligation bonds would be used to build the streetcar, he said.
All three Board members are committed to the streetcar, “but not at any cost,” Fisette said. Their continued support depends upon the County’s ability to finance construction by leveraging a combination of federal, state, regional and local commercial funds dedicated to new transportation projects.
“We will build the streetcar only if it does not require Arlington homeowners to take on General Obligation bond debt to pay for it,” Fisette said. “We would walk away from the project rather than violate that pledge.”
After years of public discussion, studies, analyses and debate, and several votes by both the Arlington Board and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Fisette said, “the time has come to act – to move forward without delay to build a streetcar system.”
Much of County’s growth expected along streetcar route
The 7.4-mile streetcar route travels through two areas of the County that combined, will account for 65 percent of Arlington’s overall population growth and 44 percent of its overall job growth over the next 30 years, Fisette noted. “No possible bus-alone system can handle that ridership growth,” he said.
A modern streetcar, Fisette said, “will ease congestion,” and attract new private investment “that will benefit our entire County in increased property values and increased tax revenues that will help fund services and infrastructure across Arlington.” No possible bus-only alternative would come close to matching the expected return on investment of the streetcar, he said.
County committed to cost-effective project, accelerated timeline
Reading a prepared statement, Fisette said that he, Hynes and Tejada had each consulted extensively both with the community and with the County Attorney, before arriving at their conclusions.
“We have heard your questions and concerns and have moved to address them,” Fisette said. He and his colleagues “are determined that the streetcar will be built in a cost-effective and timely manner. We will closely oversee this project.”
The County recently took an important step when it signed a program management contract with Parsons Transportation Group, Fisette said, that requires the firm to look for ways to cut costs and reduce the timeline for delivering the streetcar.
Hynes and Tejada made their own statements regarding the referendum.
Hynes said the Board will not let funding for construction of the streetcar affect other priority community needs, such as schools.
"Our record as a Board clearly shows that we take fiscal concerns seriously as we strive to achieve our vision," Hynes said. She cited recent decisions to put the Long Bridge Park center on hold and to re-engineer the transit stations along Columbia Pike -- a move that reduced that project’s costs by more the 40 percent. "The same steps must and will be taken with the streetcar program," she said.
“Fundamentally, this is all about expanding our tax base as a way to create a vibrant, diverse future for our entire County," Hynes said.
Initially, Tejada said, he shared he concerns of many in the community “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.”
However, plans the County has put in place to retain 6,200 units of affordable housing and add 14,000 new residences on the Pike have won him over, Tejada said.
“Investment in 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,” Tejada said. “This will directly result in more money for affordable housing. It will also mean more funds for other County services, including schools.”
The statements came as the Board is considering the County Manager’s Proposed 10-year Capital Improvement Program, which includes funding for streetcar. Board Members Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt have called for all spending on streetcar to be frozen and for the County to hold a streetcar referenda. The Board will vote on the CIP at its July meeting.
Fisette urged streetcar opponents to “join together and work to make this project a success and a source of pride for our entire community.”