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Streetcar Fight Marks County Board Debate Between Howze and Vihstadt

(Updated at 2:25 p.m.) Vying for a seat on the Arlington County Board, challenger Alan Howze and incumbent John Vihstadt made their cases for and against the big-ticket Columbia Pike streetcar and described other goals should they be elected November 4.

Speaking before the Arlington Civic Federation last night, Howze, a streetcar backer, repeated his call for a public referendum on the transportation option, calling it a huge economic opportunity for the county.

“When you look at the capacity and the economic development that will be driven by the streetcar versus the buses, it’s a smart investment to make,” he said. “We’re talking about passing on thousands of jobs in our community and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that can go toward funding our schools and our social services.”

Howze suggested looking at renewable energy to power the streetcar. “If we can get into a long-term power purchasing agreement, it may actually not cost anything” beyond current energy rates, he said.

Vihstadt countered that the streetcar’s operating costs will have to be funded by bonds and tax dollars and that improved buses are a cheaper and more flexible option.

“The way to keep taxes under control in this county is not to spend so much,” he said. “People want to get from point A to point B in the fastest amount of time, in reasonable comfort and at a good price. The bus is the way to do that.”

Vihstadt said he is not a “single-issue candidate” and stated he would focus on creating affordable housing if elected.

“We want an Arlington that’s welcoming, that’s diverse and that’s affordable to everybody and it’s just really a question of how we’re going to do that — whether it’s through additional committed affordable units or additional housing grants or a special program for workforce housing, I am completely open to that,” he said.

Howze said he was also committed to making affordable housing a priority.

Vihstadt touted his successes thus far in bringing “balance and accountability” to the Board and reminded audience members that he won their vote in April. Vihstadt, a Republican who ran as an independent, won the special election in April to replace Chris Zimmerman (D) on the board. He captured 57 percent of the vote, to Democrat Howze’s 41 percent.

“Since I’ve been on the Board, we have lowered the property tax rate for the first time in nine years, freed up more bonding authority for more new schools and additions to address our capacity crisis, and we’ve directed the County Manager to examine staffing levels for our fire and police,” Vihstadt’s opening statement said.

In his opening statement, Howze criticized Vihstadt’s work on the board thus far.

“He put politics ahead of the needs of our community when he voted this summer against funding for school construction, Metro and parks in the Capital Improvement Plan, just to make a political point,” the statement said. “But political obstruction won’t build schools for our children or secure a more prosperous future.”

Also participating in the Civic Federation candidate forum were the three candidates running for two open Arlington School Board seats. Nancy Van Doren, who is running unopposed, addressed the capacity crowd at Virginia Hospital Center’s Hazel conference center, as did Nov. 4 opponents Barbara Kanninen and Audrey Clement.

Running for the seat left vacant by Sally Baird’s retirement, Kanninen said she would respond to residents’ concerns about overcrowding, excessive testing and the budget.

“Every child is more than a test score. We need to expand opportunities for all students to develop their critical thinking, creative and job skills,” said Kanninen, who is an environmental economist and children’s book author.

(Kanninen and Van Doren have received the endorsement of the Arlington County Democratic Committee in the nonpartisan race.)

Audrey Clement, who has a Ph.D. in political science and classroom experience as a professor, said she would help boost student achievement and reign in spending.

“On a per student basis, Arlington spends more than any other school district in Virginia,” she said. “If elected, I will work with my school board colleagues to streamline the budget and guarantee success for all Arlington students.”

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