Streetcar Dominates Board Debate, Even in N. Arlington

by ARLnow.com October 12, 2012 at 7:30 pm 9,083 66 Comments

(Updated at 7:45 p.m.) The debate venue was the Radnor / Ft. Myer Heights Civic Association candidates night, held at an apartment building just outside Rosslyn on Tuesday.

The participants were the three candidates for Arlington County Board: incumbent Democrat Libby Garvey, Green Party candidate Audrey Clement and Republican Matt Wavro.

Despite the fact that the audience lives north of Route 50, in a neighborhood that has plenty of concerns about traffic, development, aircraft noise and other issues, the main topic of the debate was the Columbia Pike streetcar. The streetcar so dominated the first half of the debate that the moderator had to eventually ask the audience to refrain from asking about it.

It’s ironic, then, that the candidates all essentially agreed with one another.

“We need sensible transit,” said Garvey, in her opening remarks. “I have been working deliberately to gather more information about the proposed streetcar and the more I look at it the more convinced I am that what we need is a bus rapid transit system, or BRT. That is by far the best solution for us at this point.”

Wavro also advocated for enhanced bus service along Columbia Pike instead of the streetcar, but he blasted Garvey for abstaining during a vote on the streetcar in July.

“We’ve had studies, more studies, then more studies on the Columbia Pike trolley,” he said. “With that amount of information out there, [Garvey] should be able to make a decision against the trolley.”

Clement echoed Wavro’s criticism.

“Board members are elected to take stands on controversial issues, not back away from them,” she said, adding that the streetcar will absorb tax dollars that could be used for capital improvements to Arlington’s existing transportation network and service enhancements like expanded weekend ART bus service.

There was disagreement over whether the Pike streetcar is a decision that can be reversed or not. Wavro argued that a lone board member would and should not be able to reverse the community process that led to the streetcar vote this summer. Garvey said the board only approved a “transit system” and that the “vehicle” for that system is a decision that will be made “down the line.”

“I think this will probably be the most important vote that I’m going to take in my time on the Board, and I’m hoping to be on the Board for about 12 years,” she said.

In addition to speaking out about the Columbia Pike streetcar, Clement also criticized Garvey’s vote to approve the Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Area Plan, which she said will eliminate affordable housing and “will transform the Pike into a gentrified urban canyon.” Wavro, meanwhile, spoke of the need to preserve market rate affordable housing — housing that’s affordable without government intervention — along the Pike and throughout the county.

Wavro made fiscal responsibility a pillar of his platform, saying the Board shouldn’t need to raise property tax rates — like it did this spring — on top of increases in property assessments.

“We should be able to fund our priorities through the increased assessments,” he said. “What we’ve seen from the County Board… is a trajectory of spending on capital projects that includes a tax or rent increase for every Arlington resident each year for the next ten years in order to maintain our AAA bond rating. I think we should have a much more responsible capital spending plan.”

Clement again agreed with Wavro, but delivered a sharper attack on Garvey and the Democrat-controlled County Board.

“In the current uncertain financial climate spurred by BRAC closures and the federal deficit, I view spending for key products in the [Capital Improvement Plan], including the [Long Bridge Park] aquatic center and the trolley, as reckless and irresponsible, and will oppose them unless the county’s economic outlook improves” she said. “In addition to opposing profligate capital spending, I have a specific plan for action to promote fiscal responsibility that emphasizes funding basic needs and investment in sustainable infrastructure.”

If elected, Clement pledged to oppose any tax rate increase and to try to repeal this year’s tax increase. Clement, along with Wavro, also proposed the hiring of an independent inspector general to audit and analyze the county’s budget.

Garvey, for her part, also promised a degree of fiscal responsibility.

“We need to set our priorities strategically,” she said. “This is a very privileged community that’s used to having a lot… [but] we cannot do everything. We need to focus on core services, schools, transit, education and a strong social safety net.”

Garvey questioned the decision to fund the Artisphere in Rosslyn the same year the County Board declined to raise police pay, and questioned the need to keep building new theaters.

“I’m thinking maybe we have enough black box theaters,” she said. “I’m not against theaters, I love theater, but our schools have theaters.”

She said Arlington is facing challenges that will require “strong leadership.”

“Things are changing,” she said. “Every year it’s more expensive to live here. Meanwhile, the federal government — a mainstay of our economy — is shrinking. And all around us our neighbors are working on their own smart growth policies. Soon Tysons will have its own Metro line. In short we’re starting to lose our competitive advantage.”

On the topic of traffic, Wavro skewered the county’s practice of reconfiguring streets to make them narrower. The goal of such “road diets,” in his view, is to “make it more frustrating for people [who] drive their cars.”

Wavro said the county should be focused on making forms of transportation more convenient.

“The number one thing is getting people where they need to go in the least amount of time,” he said. “People in Arlington have important things to do and of course places to go, and we ought to help them get there as County Board members.”

Clement said she supports greater investment in transportation and transit, but not in streetcar systems. She also suggested that there’s a limit to how “car free” Arlington could be.

“I’m extremely cynical of other county’s citizens, in so far as I don’t think they want to get out of their cars,” she said. “But I don’t hold the same view of Arlington residents. I do believe Arlington residents are ready for mass transit, but it’s not there yet and the Pike trolley will make it even more difficult to get there.”

In response to the question about traffic, Garvey again reiterated her support for a bus rapid transit system, and floated the idea of a regional BRT system — and that stemmed, she said, from conversations with the leaders of other local jurisdictions, like Montgomery County and Fairfax County.

Later in the debate, Clement made the case for more citizen involvement with county decisions. She cited the case of Tuckahoe Elementary School parents who were upset about a plan to place trailers on the school’s blacktop, but failed to show up at a County Board meeting to voice their concerns.

“Stop being uncritical of the County Board,” she said. “If County Board doesn’t hear your concerns, obviously they’re not going to do anything about it.”

  • NIMBY the Chicken

    What a waste of a debate, talk about something the incumbent clearly is not on board for (pun intended).

  • Ralph

    Wavro doesn’t get it. Of course we want to make Arlington less friendly for cars!

    Because that means… less traffic, less noise, less accidents, less cars flipped upside down. More pedestrians, more bicyclists, more kids walking to school (with our without tuba).

    Glad the Republicans don’t have a chance in Arlington. Let them stay outside the Beltway.

    • NIMBY the Chicken

      You do realize that arresting traffic flow = arresting commerce, right? I just want to check.

      • Ralph

        Not true. Look at European cities — downtown is often very difficult to access by car. Commerce is doing more than fine.

        • Dave

          Examples and comparative data to back that up, please.

          • Josh S

            Let’s not go abroad – how about Manhattan? Last I remember, the decision to close down Times Square was so successful, they made it a regular thing.

        • Sam

          Yes, the Euro zone is just doing fantastic economically.

          • confused

            When I think of less car focused parts of europe, I think of denmark and the netherlands, which are doing pretty well, not of Greece or Portugal.

          • drax

            Because of streetcars?

            Please get serious.

          • Josh S

            Gosh, that’s a very sophisticated analysis you got going there.

            Euro zone problems don’t appear to have much to do with urban design and / or transit options in downtown areas. Aging populations, difficulty in balancing budgets, structural banking problems similar to what the US has faced – these appear to be more direct causes of those Euro zone problems you read about in the microstories in the Express.

      • drax

        You realize that this will make traffic flow better, not worse, right?

      • Josh S

        I didn’t realize cars had their own bank accounts.

        Yes, you want to make it easy for *people* to move in and out of an area. Cars, bikes, feet, buses – it doesn’t really matter how they get there.

    • Eye Roll

      The trolley is a ridiculous waste of money.

      I’m a Democrat. I’m voting for Wavro.

      • Zelora

        I’m a Democrat and I’m voting for Clement.
        The County Board needs its chain jerked, hard. When you get into the voting booth (I voted absentee), look at the bond issues. They are overgeneralized. You can’t vote for transit separately from the trolley, nor schools in general apart from the proposed right-next-to-each-other schools at Highway 50 and Carlin Springs.
        A NO vote to any or all of these may inform the board that Arlington voters are not going to rubber-stamp everything they dream up.
        I just can’t go all the way to the party of oppression, anti-feminism, etc.

        • Eye Roll

          I’m with you there. I’ll always vote Dem in state and national elections. But I agree–all these bonds, put up at EVERY election. Parks bonds, but somehow the existing parks are neglected by the parks dept. Arlington loves to build new things but not maintain old things, because that’s less glamorous and interesting.

          • JimPB

            Where and in what specific ways are existing parks neglected? I haven’t seen neglect, but then I have seen only a few of the ArlCO parks.

          • Eye Roll

            Trees still down from the derecho, weeds and ivy everywhere.

          • drax

            Example – they wanted to shut down the Lubber Run ampitheatre instead of fixing it up.

          • Josh S

            What happened in the end?

          • Example

            Have you seen YHS’ baseball field outfield maintained by Parks and Rec. It is a mess…same for Softball.

          • Take a look

            The close up SATELLITE view of YHS fields from google maps says it all.

  • JimPB

    I’ve been involved with housing for low- and moderate-income families for more than 3 decades through a housing project in Maryland (great location, excellent condition with 4 bedroom rent $800+/mo. (natural gas and water included) plus electricity and communications of residents choice (phone, cable, internet). We’ve acquired adjacent land for an expansion. Daunting to build there and have rents below the market rate for the area ($1200 – $1500/mo. for 3 bedroom). We might also acquire an existing property. Again, the arithmetic shows that rents below market rent would be a daunting task. So,
    I would love to know the specifics of how to “preserve market rate affordable housing — housing that’s affordable without government intervention.” Without specifics that work the goal of preserving market rate housing without government intervention is only a dream (more explicitly, a delusion).

    • confused

      you preserve it by NOT building things like street cars that make the area more attractive. OTOH we are also told that new development will happen with or without the street car.

      Thats whats so confusing.

    • D Luciano

      Obviously market rented units are not going to be as cheap as subsidized units or below market units that operate without a subsidy. Older buildings always have lower rents than newer buildings, though. This is true when comparing similar buildings and apartments but where the age of buildings differs. Secondly, newer apartment units are often in large buildings with extra amenities. These amenities are paid for by tenants and offering these amenities allows developers to increase rents. So, to preserve “affordable” (e.g. less unaffordable) rental units, planners can choose to not change zoning in ways that would allow higher intensity development on parcels that have older apartment buildings.

      To put it differently, there’s old apartment buildings off Lee Highway in Arlington (near courthouse). If the county stepped up the zoning and allowed high density development on those parcels than all those older buildings would be torn down and new expensive buildings put up. But, for as long as the zoning stays the same a developer cannot profitably redevelop that area.

      So, 1) avoid fixed rail transit
      2) even if you build fixed rail transit, don’t rezone areas with older apartment buildings and those buildings are likely to stay as they are.
      3) when new apartments are built, the old buildings will be relatively more affordable.

      • D Luciano

        Just one point to add…

        Rail transit will increase costs but it will also provide a new amenity. In this sense, you might argue rail transit is not necessarily making housing more expensive. Yes, rents will go up faster if rail transit is built near older apartments, but those older apartments will be accessible to a (presumably) very desirable fixed rail transit investment. So, you get what you pay for.

        If your landlord offered you to move into a larger apartment in the same building, you would expect to pay more for rent. So, having a larger apartment is not necessarily more expensive in the sense that you get more and you pay more. The overall price is higher, but how you know what is “more expensive after accounting for the benefit of the added space” is a complex question that has to do with overall rents and incomes, spending priorities and demands for space. Not everyone wants that extra space, some would be willing to pay more for it.

        Similarly, this transportation problem is more complex. I think you could claim the streetcar makes higher quality transit more accessible and more affordable by bringing it to other areas… Still, if housing prices go up per bedroom than there is a socioeconomic class impact that shouldn’t be ignored.

        Another way to look at it is that the County, State, and federal governments all subsidize roads by paying for roads with taxes levied not directly in proportion to the amount of road space used by each road user. Gas taxes also don’t create a direct connection between the cost of building roads and using them, since there are mediating factors such as car size, driving habits, or different costs of building different roads. And, road spending is subsidized by revenues other than gas taxes. So, the point is that transit gets far less subsidies than roads do.

        Since the county cannot easily raise gas taxes (people would fill up outside the county and evade the tax) and cannot easily tax for road usage (an “odometer tax” on each mile driven) the county strategy *seems* like attempting to increase subsidies to transit to make transit more desirable…  

      • Maggie

        Following your rationale, we end up with slum lords ilo landlords. Allowing higher density in certain areas of a development in exchange for the retention of affordable housing in the rest of it is one tool for maintaining at least some of our affordable housing … in a much better state of repair. I think it is very easy for those living in the already redeveloped or the strictly single family sections of Arlington to advocate for affordable housing here in poor S. Arlington along the Pike. I’ve noticed that at least one of our affordable housing advocates lives in Fairlington, which was completely redeveloped and has no market rate housing at all. Seems pretty hypocritical to me! Move here to the Pike in or near the housing that is slowly but surely turning into slums and you’d speak a different tune.

  • Douglas Park

    I’m a fan of the streecar. I can’t believe a “green” candidate would be against transit. Shame.

    • NIMBY the Chicken

      She’s not against transit. She’s pro-transit if you read what was said.

      • Electricbill

        A streetcar is more green than a bus. I wonder if the green party knows about all those glossy flyers her people hand out. Vote for whoever you want, but Clement will never get my vote. IMO she’s out of touch with Arlington and the environment.

        • NIMBY the Chicken

          1) That’s irrelevant. 2) An empty streetcar sucking electricty is not as efficient as a full bus.

          • Electricbill

            What is irrelavant? Her non eco friendly flyers or her non eco friendly transportation ideas?

          • Electricbill

            Also please point me to any study that says the streetcar will be empty? I have not seen one report that says people won’t ride it.

          • NIMBY The Chicken

            I made a point against your transit point and you changed the subject to mailers… so yeah your mailer bit is irrelevant in this sense.

            And there’s no study that says the streetcar will be empty but it’s not rocket science that a bus operating at capacity would be less taxing on the environment than a streetcar operating far from it.

          • commonsense

            I don’t know why you’re attacking Electricbill. YOU said the trolly would be empty. Do you always have to make up stories to prove a point? It seems you had to make up something about the trolly being empty in order to discredit him/her. If it isn’t rocket science that a bus operating at capacity would be less taxing on the environment, you should have no problem explaining it. When you do please provide your source. A green party candidate should be green. I assume that was the point Electricbill was making.

            I also find the woman annoying. You can’t go to the farmers market without her people harassing you to take her glossy flyers.

          • Josh S

            Down with gloss!
            Up with matte!

          • confused

            the expectation is that a street car will get higher ridership than a bus, that is the main reason its better for the environment, plus by having more people in higher density areas it means more people walking and biking. The Green party has an old pre-smart growth view of what is green. They are more the party of local NIMBYISM than of global concerns.

          • Electricbill

            The street car will get more riders. I suspect Shirlington was sort of a bus experiment. I don’t think Shirlington is in any way a failure, but I think the county wanted more people taking the bus there. I think that is a factor in wanting the street car. I have nothing to back this up. It is just my opinion.

          • drax

            Empty streetcar?

          • Electricbill

            I’m still waiting for Nimby’s explaination. I’m not holding my breath.

        • Maggie

          Clement has absolutely no experience in county affairs. When I asked her what her credentials were, her response centered on her work background …. no mention of a civic association, county group or committee. How can you be a board member if you haven’t been involved in the community process at all?

  • Stooges


    1. It’s a good thing Libby abstained since she does NOT in fact know what she would have been voting for or against.
    2. Audrey doesn’t know that the County Government and the Public Schools are independent from each other.
    3. Wavro thinks their are tools to encourage landlords to retain market rate affordable housing without giving them tax credits. I suppose we could go down there with baseball bats and spray paint…

  • bobbytiger

    None of this talk makes any difference, as what the county boards wants, the county board gets. It’s an old established rule.

    • What’s Shakin’

      There is at best just the illusion of a democracy here in Arlington.

      Ah well………..

      • drax

        Losing an election is democracy, dude. It’s not an illusion. Don’t be a sore loser.

    • Maggie

      And the majority of Arlingtonians are happy with things the way they are or they wouldn’t keep electing an all Democrat county board.

  • Arlutingfacts

    isn’t some of the Pike already a gentrified urban canyon?

    • NIMBY The Chicken

      Gentrified would be a compliment

    • Electricbill

      The new parts look great. I hope it continues.

  • George

    what a waste of money. Please, we need a streetcar soooo much

    • Ralph

      Random Arlington resident, 1960:

      “what a waste of money. Please, we need a metro soooo much”

      • drax

        Shut down Metro and build a 12-lane highway instead!

        • Becoming indifferent

          Comparing Metro and street car makes you all look like idiots. Streetcar–local; Metro–regional. Big difference.

          • Maggie

            No … the street car will connect to the metro station in Pentagon City. You have to be able to get to the metro to use it.

  • Jack Tors

    Thanks, Zimmerman! You’ve lost your mind, and we have to pay for it.

  • John Andre

    One factor: in my neighborhood [Columbia Heights West] streetcar construction along the Pike might impact pedestrian travel by shutting down the sidewalks without effective pedestrian detours. The intersection of Columbia Pike and South Jefferson Street needs to be re-engineered…there are all sorts of turn lanes not controlled by the traffic signal.

    In addition bike traffic on sidewalks in Arlington County needs to be moved onto the streets. Too often we pedestrians risk injury from fast-moving cyclists coming up silently from behind…they don’t always warn us adequately. In addition I’ve sometimes seen mopeds using the sidewalks along Eighth Road South. This is definitely illegal.

    • Rick

      So you think the county has done an inadequate job of laying down bike lanes?

  • John Snyder

    Libby Garvey needs to pay attention during board meetings. The county board voted 4-0 for the streetcar as the locally preferred alternative, and has committed to move forward with that plan. It was not just a vote for “transit”, which the Pike has had since the 1940’s. It was a vote for streetcar transit. The county board also voted 5-0 that same night for a land use plan including the biggest affordable housing preservation plan in the history of Arlington, which is 100% dependent on streetcar transit. Cancel the streetcar and you cancel the affordable housing preservation.

    • Jack Tors

      Wrong. Take the bus.

    • Maggie

      Way to go John.

  • JnA

    Per my Virginia Power electric bill this past summer: Virginia Power obtains 37% of it’s electricity from coal, 42% from nuclear, 17% from burning natural gas and 1% from burning oil. Rest from “renewable energy” which includes burning waste wood, and gas generated by landfills.

    CNG fuel cell buses on the Pike would not destroy the environment twice, once by mining or fracking and once by burning whatever fuel is obtained by mining or fracking.

    Libby Garvey has voted for massive new buildings in Rosslyn and Crystal City, each with 700+ vehicle parking garages and a redevelopment of the Pike that will build 430 parking spaces. Only reason she opposes a streetcar on the Pike is because her opponents do.

  • Ted

    The biggest issue against streetcars should be safety. Streetcar tracks cannot be safely crossed by bicycles when the tracks are wet. Even a low speed collision between an automobile and a streetcar causes massive damage to the auto.

    • Josh S

      One streetcar on rails versus 30-40 cars driven by people texting? I’ll take the streetcar for safety.

  • Josh S

    What is a “gentrified urban canyon?” She’s trying to use words with negative connotations to paint the plan in a negative light. Otherwise, what – we’re supposed to think it’s the height of the buildings she objects to?

    The point of the Col Pike plan is to get more housing units built. There is and will continue to be strong demand. This demand means that rents will go up. You have to add units to try to address the demand and keep rents from going up as much. Yes, attempt to carve out a percentage of those new units as affordable units because there will always be those who cannot afford market rate. But to trash the whole plan as a “gentrified urban canyon” – it makes no sense.

    Would she consider the R-B corridor a “gentrifed urban canyon?” I imagine so. But, like it or not, it’s the most popular part of the county – people want to live, work, and shop there. Demand is strong there – stronger than it was before it changed. Sitting on the sidelines and criticising it as yuppie or something like that is just unproductive and a terrible strategy for the Green party as it will keep them on the fringes of political discouse. Which is a shame, because I really, really want to like a party like the Greens.

  • Seems like pandering, b/c the streetcar is coming.

    Also, it would have been cool to hear what the people in attaendance thought, not just the ‘community representatives.’

  • southarlington

    They want everyone out of there cars so they can raise taxes on condos and houses ….haven’t people thought about that . The county will never get everyone out of there cars because the transit system is never consistent and people can not waste time with public transit….The roads and the infrastructure here will never be like Europe because everything is built to spread out …. and everyone is in a rush to get to work and we are not a laid back society like Europe…

    • Maggie

      Hence the current push towards increased density …. to accommodate more people in less space and circumvent urban sprawl and the attendant traffic jams that accompany it.


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