Widening I-66 from Fairfax Drive in Arlington to the Beltway is a future possibility, but not a certainty, under a long-range plan being considered by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.
The body voted last week to include a series of proposals concerning I-66 in an air quality analysis. The planning board will take a final vote on the plan this fall.
The TPB gave a preliminary thumbs up to a VDOT proposal to convert I-66 inside the Beltway to High Occupancy Toll lanes during peak hours, accessible only to buses, cars with three or more occupants, and those willing to pay a toll. The state would continue to own the lanes and would collect the tolls, unlike a proposal for privately-built HOT lanes on I-395 that Arlington County vehemently opposed. The total cost of the project: $350 million.
In the air quality analysis, the TPB also included a proposal to widen I-66 from Fairfax Drive to the Beltway. The widening would potentially take place sometime between 2025 and 2040, but not sooner.
Under an amendment proposed by Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette, the county’s representative on the regional board, VDOT would be required to report on the effectiveness of tolling and other multi-modal improvements before VDOT makes a determination of whether widening — which Arlington has generally opposed — is necessary.
So far, widening I-66 between Fairfax Drive and the Roosevelt Bridge is not under consideration.
Fisette said it’s encouraging that VDOT is considering earmarking toll revenue for various multi-modal improvements along the I-66 corridor — including transit services, bike and pedestrian infrastructure and park-and-ride lots, plus improvements to parallel routes like Route 50 and Lee Highway.
“That is a very significant difference between this HOT lane project and any other one that they have built or proposed,” Fisette said. “That has given our staff some level of comfort that this isn’t just about the road, that it’s about moving people through the corridor. It is our goal to move more people than vehicles.”
Despite the fact that Fisette’s amendment was accepted, he said he abstained from the day’s final vote. He said he will be watching closely as details about the proposed multi-modal improvements are “fleshed out” in the coming months, before deciding how to vote in the fall.
The press release regarding the TPB’s Feb. 18 vote, after the jump.
Del. Patrick Hope is chief patron of HB 2308, which allows counties with the county manager form of government — namely, Arlington — to hire an auditor with the power to “make performance reviews of operations of county agencies or county-funded programs.” The auditor would ensure money is being spent wisely and evaluate the effectiveness of those agencies and programs.
The bill passed the House of Delegates unanimously yesterday.
“I believe in the case of Arlington, where we have more than a $1 billion operating budget and over 3,000 employees, localities who don’t already have this authority will be seeking it to ensure government is working as efficiently as possible,” Hope told ARLnow.com in an email today. “If this authority is exercised, I think it will give Arlington residents an added level of confidence that their taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely.”
Currently, the County Board only has the authority to hire a county manager, county clerk and county attorney. County Board member John Vihstadt has been pushing for the county to hire an independent auditor since his election last April. If Hope’s bill passes the state Senate and is signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe — which Hope expects, but “I’ve learned over the years you never know” — the Board will begin to deliberate hiring its own independent auditor.
Board member Jay Fisette serves as the five-member panel’s legislative liaision, and is a former auditor himself. He said Hope’s bill is “another tool to consider” as the county develops its budget for the next fiscal year. Fisette said the county used to have several auditing mechanisms, but many of them were cut during the economic recession.
At one point, the county had an audit committee with a $100,000 budget that evaluated performance contracts, Fisette said. A decade ago, the county had two internal auditors ensuring that money wasn’t being spent fraudulently, but budget cuts have meant those services are now contracted out.
“The manager has been working to hire an internal auditor, and we had a great candidate who backed out,” Fisette said. He added that the Board supports Hope’s legislation. “We will set up, in the next few months, the best way to support that audit function. Who would oversee the work plan if they are going to report to us.”
Hope said the state Senate will likely consider the bill within the next two weeks.
In 2015, he is the lone County Board member with a snowy sidewalk in front of his house.
Responding to a reader tip, ARLnow.com checked out the sidewalk in front of Fisette’s home last night, as well as those in front of County Board members Walter Tejada, John Vihstadt and the County Board Chair, Mary Hynes. (Libby Garvey lives in a condominium.)
While those of his colleagues were immaculately cleared, the sidewalk in front of Fisette’s Ashton Heights home was still largely covered with snow and ice. There was some evidence of perhaps an attempt at shoveling, but much of the sidewalk was completely covered.
Arlington’s snow removal ordinance requires homeowners to clear snow and ice from the entire width of their sidewalk within 24 hours of the end of a snow event with accumulations below six inches, or within 36 hours of a six inch or higher snowfall. It calls for a fine between $50 and $100 for violations.
Fisette wasn’t the only one in his neighborhood with an snowy, icy sidewalk. Numerous houses, including one across the street, were in violation of the ordinance as well.
Fisette also isn’t the only local county policymaker guilty to not following their county’s snow ordinance. Yesterday, the Washington Post pointed out that the sidewalk outside Montgomery County Council President George Leventhal’s house still had patches of ice and snow.
This afternoon, Fisette talked to ARLnow.com and issued a mea culpa.
“I should have figured out a way to clean the sidewalk,” Fistte acknowledged. “The ordinance was an attempt to improve or keep sidewalks safe for people, and that’s a very worthy goal. I’ve always done that in the past.”
Fisette explained that his husband is out of town this week and he worked a 14 hour day on Tuesday, when the snow struck, leaving the house at 8:00 a.m. and not returning until 10:00 p.m.
“I know everybody has had complications… it’s not meant to be an excuse, because I should have gone out and done it,” he said. “I will take care of it when I get home from work at the end of the day.”
Arlington TV, the county-run television channel, has released its annual year in review video.
This year’s video is titled “Prosperity Through Change.” It includes highlights such as the election of County Board member John Vihstadt, the launch of TandemNSI, the completion of the new Courthouse Road/Route 50 interchange, the opening of 400 new affordable housing units, the approval of major school renovations and the redesign of the county website, among other 2014 milestones.
“Through all this growth and change, we’ve maintained the very best characteristics of a small town,” County Board Chair Jay Fisette says in the video. “Our community is strong, diverse, caring and incredibly civic-minded. Together we will build a promising future for the generations of Arlingtonians who will follow us, and we will remain the place that other communities look to for inspiration.”
Fisette also talks about the surprise cancellation of the county’s streetcar project.
“It was the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make,” Fisette says. “It was a realization that the support that had existed when these plans were developed was no longer there, to the point where it was immobilizing and distracting our community.”
John Vihstadt was sworn in for his first four-year term on the Arlington County Board yesterday evening before an overflow crowd in the County Board room.
It was the second time in a year Vihstadt was sworn in, after winning a special election in April to replace Chris Zimmerman, who resigned in February. In both cases, Vihstadt, a Republican-endorsed independent, defeated Democrat Alan Howze, who was in attendance yesterday.
“Our campaign brought so many people together, united with a message of fiscal responsibility, greater transparency, accountability and checks and balances,” Vihstadt said. Each of his electoral victories were by substantial margins, and came as surprises to many election observers.
“They were not victories based on one issue, despite what some have said, but many issues,” he continued. “They were not victories for national issues, but local issues. Issues that our county can do something about today, tomorrow and the next day.”
Vihstadt’s election was the biggest factor in the County Board’s decision to cancel the Columbia Pike streetcar last month, and as he laid out his priorities for his term, his fifth and final one was directed at the residents of the Pike, Pentagon City and Crystal City corridors. Despite the streetcar’s cancellation, he vowed to bring a more robust transit system to the corridor in the future.
“Yes there are wounds in our community,” he said, “but we need to work together to bind them up in a collaborative fashion.”
Vihstadt acknowledged his 94-year-old father, Ed, whose bible he was sworn in on, and his two sons, Ben, a college student, and Jack, a resident of the Columbia Pike area. He also reminded residents that his contact information is on his website. “Please use it,” he said.
Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette closed the ceremony, minutes before his last meeting as this year’s Board chair, and said he already has a good working relationship with his newest colleague.
“John’s sense of stewardship and responsibility have already become apparent and are very much appreciated,” Fisette said. “I have no doubt that Arlington’s future is bright and that John Vihstadt will be a part of that future success.”
The announcement follows the I-66 Multimodal Study, which wrapped up last year and presented a number of options for improvements to I-66 inside the Beltway, including high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and a third travel lane in each direction. County officials have vehemently opposed widening I-66, and the county successfully sued VDOT to block HOT lanes on I-395.
In a letter to Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette today, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, Jr. said that the Commonwealth is pursuing a multimodal improvement package that includes converting I-66 to HOT lanes during peak hours. (I-66 is currently HOV-only during rush hour.)
Layne said the Commonwealth will be initiating an environmental assessment as the first step toward pursuing changes. He also said the package would include capacity improvements for Metrorail and buses along the corridor, but did not specify whether a third travel lane is to be added, according to a county spokeswoman.
Fisette responded to Layne’s letter with the following statement Friday afternoon.
Arlington is passionate about giving people travel choices. I have just received this letter and have shared it with my Board colleagues and the County Manager. The letter references the I-66 Multimodal Study (inside the beltway) as the basis for any future improvements. It is fair to say that Arlington contributed heavily to that study and largely embraced it. With that in mind, we will consider this new effort and determine how best to constructively respond and engage as a community. We are all concerned about congestion along this vital corridor. It is important to note, however, that whatever changes are made, must enhance all multimodal options – as the I-66 Multimodal Study concluded.
Last week, ARLnow.com reported that Arlington’s site plan application process prohibits the county from receiving funds for schools when developers build bigger buildings, including apartments and condos. If the county wants to start receiving funds directly from developers to offset school costs, the site plan process has to be modified.
“I believe it is time to start a community conversation as to how we might consider adjustment to the site plan system to be more cognizant of school needs,” Vihstadt told ARLnow.com. “This won’t happen overnight, and it may require legislation in Richmond, but the bottom line is we need to be more creative and proactive in planning for and accommodating the growing enrollment trends in our schools, and we need more tools to do so.”
In Northern Virginia’s suburban counties like Fairfax and Loudoun, county governments negotiate proffers with developers who want to build higher density projects. These proffers include, at least for Loudoun, fully funding the development’s impact on schools, roads and public safety. Those jurisdictions, however, don’t have nearly the commercial tax base of Arlington, which raises about half of its revenue from commercial real estate.
“What we rely on for the payment of the ongoing governmental services are the tax support that comes from the buildings,” Arlington County Board Jay Fisette told ARLnow.com last week. “The system we use has been in place for over 50 years and it has resulted in one of the most successful transformations of a community ever.”
Garvey, who has been on the County Board since 2012, before which she served for years on the School Board, also says it’s time to take another look at that system as Arlington Public Schools experiences unprecedented overcrowding.
“I think it is a good idea to look at the site plan system,” she said. “I would want to see the pros and cons of each before deciding.”
Garvey said she also supports an examination of the way the county and schools split tax revenue and plan their budgets.
“Another look at our revenue sharing agreement and how we do the budget process with the schools, working together with the schools, would be a good idea,” she said.
In Arlington, when a developer wants to redevelop a property to replace it with a bigger, taller building, the county often receives funding for affordable housing, transportation, streetscape improvements and public art. These “community benefits” from the developer are usually worth millions of dollars.
None of it goes directly to Arlington’s public schools, facing a capacity crisis with no end in sight.
The reason, according to officials, is Arlington’s development approval process, which was codified more than 50 years ago. Builders apply for site plans, and, by state law, community benefits from site plans can only legally be used “to mitigate immediate impacts,” according to County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac.
While a public art contribution is considered an immediate impact for a large apartment complex, for instance, a contribution to schools is not.
What the county is allowed to negotiate are “amenities that are contained within the project, like streetscape improvements, public art, the appearance of the building in general,” MacIsaac told ARLnow.com. “That system does not allow for charges for schools or public safety or running the libraries.”
In neighboring, suburban jurisdictions, developers negotiate benefits like these through the proffer system. In Loudoun County, which has opened 12 new schools in the last five years, the government pegs school costs as high as $37,791 per single family unit, and $11,294 per multifamily unit. Through proffer negotiations, Loudoun asks developers to pay for 100 percent of the estimated capital intensity factors, which includes roads and public safety, according to Loudoun Assistant Director of Planning and Zoning John Merrithew.
The number is typically lower after developers contribute state-mandated affordable housing funds, Merrithew says, but he gave the example of a recent, 70-townhouse development where the builder paid the county $1.3 million, 60 percent of which went directly to school funding. The system works, Merrithew said, because much of the development comes from previously undeveloped land.
“We don’t use the world redevelopment here,” Merrithew said, “because we have very little of it. Most of it is greenfield development.”
Sometimes, developers contribute chunks of land for a new school site. More frequently in the last decade, Merrithew said, Loudoun has bought land from private landowners to build schools. Acquiring land for public uses, including schools, is one of the recommendations the county’s Long Range Planning Committee made last week in evaluating the “Public Land for Public Good” initiative.
The county argues the site plan and special exception system in place has been a major driving force behind Arlington’s transformation over the past half-century, from sleepy suburb to dense urban hub.
“Not only has this zoning structure and this development process worked well in creating today’s Arlington, it’s also resulted in one of the best school systems in America,” Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette said. “If we would have to undo our current structure to be able to replicate what’s done in Loudoun, I think that would be ill-advised. There’s no easy fix for the school growth, but we will address it with the School Board, and we always have.”
There could be some room for debate, however, that the current policy prohibits all funding for schools and other public works. As an example, the proposed 29-story, 393-unit apartment building at the corner of Wilson Blvd and N. Randolph Street in Ballston is expected to draw a large sum of community benefit money. Fisette and MacIsaac believe none of that money can legally be spent on schools, but MacIsaac didn’t draw a hard line.
“That’s a tough legal question,” he said. “The kinds of impacts that are typically recognized in the courts in Virginia and throughout the country are much much more immediate impacts, like on the surrounding streets and neighborhood. It does not typically involved secondary and tertiary impacts like government services.”
Update at 12:40 p.m. — Fisette has announced that the streetcar project is being canceled.
Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette will make a “significant announcement” regarding the Arlington streetcar program today, according to a media alert from the county.
Fisette will hold a press conference at county government headquarters in Courthouse at noon, we’re told. There’s no word yet as to what will be announced.
The press conference will be broadcast on the county website and on Comcast channels 25 and 74 and Verizon FiOS channels 39 and 40.
No one, not even the closest of followers, expected Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt to win re-election on Tuesday by as big a margin as he did.
Vihstadt, an independent, became the first non-Democrat elected to the County Board since 1983. But the eye-opener was how he did it: by winning 39 out of 52 Arlington precincts, even though every one of those precincts chose Sen. Mark Warner (D). Vihstadt took almost 56 percent of the vote and received almost 7,500 votes more than Democratic challenger Alan Howze, out of 62,663 votes cast.
In his regular post-election report to the Arlington County Democratic Committee on Wednesday night, former Arlington County Treasurer Frank O’Leary struck a somber tone and said he was surprised by low turnout.
“I woke up this morning and I didn’t feel so good,” he said. “We had a turnout of about 48 percent. That stinks, particularly when you’re expecting a turnout as high as 61 percent. What the heck is going on? Very disappointing… I had talked about the County Board race that if turnout gets down to 60,000, if Vihstadt had 30,000 he was going to win.
“He did it,” O’Leary continued. “It didn’t seem possible, it didn’t seem likely, but it happened. The end result, if we look in terms of comparisons: first our candidate won 13 precincts, Mr. Vihstadt won 40. That’s really unheard of. I can’t even think of the last time that occurred. Last time I can think of anything like this was 1979.”
The numbers blew Vihstadt’s campaign manager Eric Brescia away, he told ARLnow.com in a phone interview yesterday (Thursday).
“We were not expecting it to be like this,” he said. “When it came in, it was just euphoric. You always have doubts; it’s very rare in modern politics that you get this many people to split their ticket. Somehow this got pulled off. I didn’t fall asleep that night just because of the adrenaline.”
Brescia said the streetcar was on many voters’ minds, but voters had other concerns, too. Vihstadt is adamantly against the streetcar, while Howze supports it.
“The streetcar was the biggest one issue, and we definitely made it a big part of our materials,” the campaign manager said. “It definitely wasn’t the only thing going on. A lot of people have generic frustrations with the county, responsiveness issues, spending issues, feeling like they’re not being listened to.”
County Board Chair Jay Fisette — who, along with Board members Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes, still make up a pro-streetcar voting majority on the Board – said Vihstadt’s messaging related to the streetcar caught voters’ attention. Fisette suggested voters chose Vihstadt because they were misinformed about the streetcar.
“I think there has been a lot of focus in the last year on that issue,” Fisette said after the ADCDC meeting. “This community has such a history of being thoughtful and policy-oriented … Here on this issue, what has been created and what we see at the moment is a lack of even agreement on some fundamental core facts about the issue.
“It’s almost like climate change,” Fisette continued. “Is it based on science that it’s true, or is it not?” (more…)
Arlington Central Library (1015 N. Quincy Street) is now lending gardening tools to Arlington residents, and all they need is a library card.
This morning, the library held a “vine cutting” to open the toolshed on its east plaza, next to its community garden. The shed, built from cedar for free by Case Design, will be open for lending from March through November on Wednesdays, 5:00-7:00 p.m., Fridays 3:00-5:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to noon. Borrowers must be residents of Arlington County and at least 18 years old.
“We want people to dig in and get their hands dirty,” Arlington Central Library Manager Margaret Brown said.
Brown was joined by Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette and Board member Libby Garvey at the toolshed’s unveiling. Brown said the library was inspired to develop the toolshed and its neighboring vegetable garden — with produce going to the Arlington Food Assistance Center — through Fisette’s sustainability initiative when he was Board chair in 2010. The plan and location for the shed was developed by the Urban Agriculture Task Force last year.
“I really think the library has done a great job of taking some of the big picture ideas the county has,” Fisette said, “and to find ways creatively… to further goals of the county and the [Urban Agriculture] Task Force.”
Fisette donated a shovel he was given from the groundbreaking of Virginia Hospital Center’s new wing in 2001. The other tools, available for borrowing immediately, are:
- Bow rakes
- Bow saw
- Bulb planters
- Dandelion puller
- Four-tined soil turner
- Flat blade shovel
- Garden hose
- Hand rakes
- Hedge clippers
- Hook and ladder
- Long-handled shovel
- Pick axes
- Post hole digger
- Seed spreader
- Walk smoother
County Board members weighed in on the ongoing Uber and Lyft controversy during Saturday’s monthly meeting, largely expressing support for the taxi drivers and companies.
None of the County Board members expressed an explicit desire to ban Uber, citing its popularity, but Board Chair Jay Fisette, Vice Chair Mary Hynes and Board member Walter Tejada each expressed sympathy for the county’s taxi drivers — who have organized protests of Uber and Lyft — who are losing business to the ridesharing services.
“As a Board, as individuals, there is a recognition that some of these new services have stolen some people’s hearts or gotten their business because of the technology they provide and some of the customer service they provide,” Fisette said. “We are very respectful of the drivers… that do need to make a living in this community and do a fine job of it, and then we need to figure out as a state and as a community what authority we have and how we might effect and take advantage of that authority as that unfolds.”
Uber’s UberX service and Lyft allow smartphone users to book rides with non-professional drivers. The drivers drive their own cars and Uber and Lyft don’t have licenses to operate as taxi or car service companies. The lack of regulatory oversight led the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a cease and desist order against the companies, but both Uber and Lyft have continued to operate in the state.
Most recently, eight Northern Virginia taxi companies — including Arlington Blue Top Cabs — have filed a lawsuit requesting an injunction against the two companies, requesting a judge order them to stop operations in the state before the DMV and Attorney General Mark Herring make a ruling on their requests for operating authority.
“I thought the cease and desist order from the state was very appropriate,” Tejada said. “Who knows what other issues are going on that we don’t know about because these [companies] are not regulated. I want to make sure the cab drivers, who are working very hard in this area, get the respect they have earned. These are hard-working individuals, and some of these companies charge them an arm and a leg to operate a cab. I hope that everyone will indeed play by the rules.”
Only John Vihstadt, the lone non-Democrat on the County Board, sang a different tune in responding to the issue, remarking about the popularity of services while pointing out he’s a loyal Arlington Red Top Cab customer.
“I think we need to keep in mind that the marketplace is responding to a need and responding to a demand,” Vihstadt said. “Competition is a good thing and we should not stifle innovation… At the same time, I think we need to consider the current regulatory scheme that we have for our established cab companies to allow them to be more competitive and able to better respond to the needs of the marketplace.”
Hynes pointed out that while Uber and Lyft have grabbed a sizable portion of the market share, they leave out customers who don’t have access to smartphones.
“The state has to explore how you make sure this service is available to all the people who might need it and that nobody is dealt out of the process by their age, disability or income,” she said. “It’s not just about the young people who use Uber and Lyft, but it’s really how it functions as a piece of our transportation system overall.”
Pub crawl organizers should have to obtain a permit for each crawl and reimburse the county for the cost of extra police on the street.
That’s what Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan is expected to recommend to the County Board at its meeting later this month. Donnellan will recommend that pub crawls be classified as “special events,” subject to the county’s special events policy, according to county officials.
Arlington’s special events policy was last updated in 2012. The policy is designed to ensure that adequate resources are available for special events while allowing the county to recover its support costs.
Classifying pub crawls as a special event is seen as a compromise, somewhere in between the crawl participants who would like the events to continue unabated and residents who see the crawls as a nuisance and would like them curtailed. The events will continue, but in a more regulated environment, provided organizers can afford the extra costs.
“Organizers would have to get a special events permit and would be required to cover the costs of additional police, fire and trash services — above core services — generated by their event,” Arlington County spokeswoman Mary Curtius told ARLnow.com. “At this point, the Manager’s recommendation does not include any minimum or maximum allowed numbers of pub crawls — the applications will be reviewed as they come in and approved based on the availability of resources.”
Donnellan’s recommendation is coming less than a month after an attendee at the All American Bar Crawl (photos from the event, above) allegedly stripped naked and led police on a car chase that ended in a crash in Clarendon. In an email to a concerned constituent, County Board Chair Jay Fisette addressed the incident.
“I want you to know that we have no tolerance for this kind of behavior. At the same time I want to stress that this incident was highly unusual,” Fisette wrote. “Our top priority is safety. The Board has concerns about the impacts of pub crawls and in April asked the Manager to research options to address these impacts.”
Fisette went on to say that pub crawls can be regulated, but not banned.
Clarendon is one of our most vibrant and lively areas. We support the businesses there, and we welcome visitors who patronize our many great restaurants, shops and pubs. We want to keep it a great place to live, visit, dine, work and shop. It’s important to know that, under Virginia law, we can’t ban pub crawls. We can, however, regulate pub crawls to ensure that they are safe for all and effectively managed. Part of that regulation must include ways that the County can recover some of the costs associated with the stepped-up enforcement activities during the events, and trash and litter cleanup after the events. In the meantime, as part of the FY15 budget, the Board approved one-time funding ($42,000) for overtime costs in the Police department while a longer term strategy is developed to address the increasing frequency and cost associated with pub crawl events.
In addition to the June incident, a bar crawl attendee made the news in March when she allegedly showed up naked at the Arlington Magistrate’s Office and demanded that she be allowed to visit her husband, who was arrested earlier that day during a St. Patrick’s Day-themed pub crawl.
Both bar crawls were organized by Courthouse-based Project D.C. Events. According to the company, the two events attracted a combined 8,500-9,000 registered attendees.
“It’s two incidents out of thousands of people,” said Project D.C. Events co-owner Alex Lopez, who also pointed out that neither happened inside a bar. Lopez and fellow co-owner Mike Bramson said they work closely with Arlington County Police and with participating bars to ensure there’s plenty of security on hand.
Neither could explain why bar crawls in Arlington have resulted in high-profile incidents and controversy while D.C.-based crawls seem to go off without a hitch.
“We’ve taken the same steps in D.C. as we do in Arlington,” Bramson said.
“You don’t hear about bar crawls in D.C. because nothing happens at them,” said Lopez. “If you say, ‘oh everything was peaceful in the last bar crawl,’ well, no one is going to read that.”
Bramson and Lopez said they and other bar crawl organizers shouldn’t be on the hook for the cost of extra police staffing because the events are already generating thousands in extra tax revenue.
Arlington officials are trying to walk a tightrope on the topic of Uber, which is pitting two constituencies against each other: tech-savvy, often younger voters vs. hard-working immigrants who have the support of labor activists.
On one hand, the Arlington County Board is sensitive to the plight of cab drivers, who are trying to fend off ride sharing services like Uber while complying with county and state regulations. On the other hand, many Arlington residents seem to like Uber, which is operating outside the law in Virginia.
County Board Chair Jay Fisette addressed the issue Tuesday, at his State of the County address. His audience: members of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. Chamber members tend to skew older than the 20-something crowd one might envision when discussing a popular smartphone app, yet when asked who had used Uber, some 50-60 percent of the room raised their hands. Fisette himself had a hand raised — “I used Uber for the first time in New York City recently,” he revealed.
Arlington caught flack from Uber fans when the police department announced it would ticket Uber drivers, given the cease and desist order issued by the Virginia Dept. of Motor Vehicles earlier this month. Fisette, however, downplayed the actual impact.
“Our police aren’t going to look for the problem, but if they run into it they’re obliged to ticket these folks,” he said.
Fisette said services that provide rides to consumers are regulated for a reason.
“We have the taxi industry, a regulated industry, created for consumer protection,” he said. “When it wasn’t regulated, quality went down and risk for customers went up.”
Fisette suggested that Uber should compete on a level playing field by complying with the law, but acknowledged that the consumers the state is trying to protect generally seems to like the service.
“I think it’s fair to say they’re seen to provide some outstanding customer service and ease of use,” Fisette said. “It’s convenient, and that customer friendliness and innovation has helped them create a market. Anytime you have a demand, you’re doing something right.”
In the end, Fisette said Arlington would participate in a state study into the Uber issue, but didn’t say what kind of perspective the county would bring to the table.
“As a locality, we don’t really have a point of view except that we have to enforce the law,” he said.
(Updated at 2:55 p.m.) Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette says the streetcar is a “strategic investment” that will drive economic development. But he acknowledges that it has an image problem.
Delivering his State of the County address to members of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, Fisette said “the workhorse modern streetcar” gets a bad rap from critics who say it would be waylaid frequently by vehicle accidents and other possible obstructions on the tracks.
Fisette pointed to an image that has popped up on blogs and in Powerpoint presentations given by critics. The image, above, shows the aftermath of a minor vehicle accident in Toronto that caused at least a half dozen streetcars to back up behind a damaged car on the tracks.
“It’s an image emblazoned in people’s minds that has distorted the debate a bit,” Fisette told the crowd.
In reality, Fisette said, such accidents will happen “very infrequently.” When it does, obstructions will be cleared from the tracks as expediently as possible. “There is a protocol in place for dealing with that quickly,” Fisette said.
Plus, Fisette argued, it’s not exactly uncommon for accidents to cause delays for vehicle traffic.
“Backups happen daily on the Beltway due to broken down cars and accidents,” he said.
Critics, like Board members Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt, say an enhanced bus system would offer many of the benefits of streetcar without the high cost and inflexibility of fixed rail. They have at times pointed to a “streetcar-like bus” in use in Las Vegas (pictured, right) as an alternative.
Fisette said fixed rail is, at least partially, the point. People — himself included — are more likely to ride a train with a fixed route than get on a bus.
“I fundamentally disagree” that buses are better than streetcar, Fisette said. “Streetcar is much more comfortable, much more accessible… multiple doors, better for wheelchairs, much smoother ride. I myself know that when I go to another city, do I jump on buses? No. Really, would I get on a rail system that’s fixed and tells you where you’re going? Yes.”
Fisette’s most oft-repeated argument for the streetcar was its higher ridership capacity. He said that prior to the Board’s streetcar approval, during a long planning process that asked Columbia Pike residents what they wanted, the community signaled that it did not want Metro and the density that would come with it, but did want more amenities.
In order to continue to revitalize Columbia Pike — and thus build more housing and retail — Fisette said there needs to be more capacity for transit than buses can provide. Already, the Pike is Virginia’s busiest bus corridor, with 600 bus trips daily carrying more than 17,000 passengers. With the Pike and Crystal City expected to account for 65 percent of the county’s population growth and 44 percent of its job growth over the next 30 years, Fisette said the streetcar is the right system to get people to where they need to go.
On the issue of how to pay for the streetcar – which carries a total price tag of more than half a billion dollars — Fisette said 93 percent of streetcar funding will come from “federal, state and regional money,” including a 12.5 cent commercial real estate tax designated for transit. He said he opposes using homeowner tax dollars for streetcar
At the same time, Fisette said he’s looking for a possible way to move forward without federal funds, since federal funding would come with strings attached, would increase costs and would slow the project down.