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BREAKING: Streetcar Project Canceled

Update at 3:55 p.m. — The County Board voted 4-1 in favor of Fisette’s motion to stop the streetcar project. The dissenting vote was Walter Tejada, who said the streetcar would have reduced congestion and helped the Columbia Pike’s revitalization. “Turning away from a modern streetcar system is a dramatic step backwards,” Tejada said. “Arlington’s credibility in the region will now be adversely affected.”

(Updated at 2:40 p.m.) Arlington County’s half-billion-dollar streetcar project for Columbia Pike and Crystal City is being canceled, County Board Chair Jay Fisette announced today.

“I have come to the conclusion that the only way to move forward together … is to discontinue the streetcar project,” Fisette said solemnly, before a large crowd of reporters. “After close consultation with [County Board members Mary] Hynes and [Walter] Tejada, with our partners in Fairfax and Richmond and with members of the community, Ms. Hynes and I have agreed that all spending on streetcar must end.”

Fisette will make it official with a motion at this afternoon’s County Board meeting. Tejada is said to oppose canceling the project and may vote against Fisette’s motion.

The streetcar project was to be funded by commercial transportation revenue, along with funding from the state and Fairfax County, which was to benefit from the Pike streetcar running to the Skyline area.

Fisette said the county will instead explore options for improving bus service on Columbia Pike. The transitway between Crystal City and Alexandria will continue to operate and be developed, but will be served only by buses. Existing streetcar contracts — like the $26 million engineering contract awarded in September — will be “wound down” as quickly as possible.

Fisette acknowledged that many business owners and residents along Columbia Pike will be disappointed by the streetcar project’s cancellation.

“There are those who moved there or developed in anticipation of the streetcar,” Fisette said. “I will say that we are committed and remain committed to the Columbia Pike corridor. We will continue to work towards the realization of that vision [of high quality, mixed use development] in a modified form, and that is the commitment of this Board. We will enhance the bus system to the extent possible.”

Fisette said that he believes a streetcar still makes sense on Columbia Pike, as it would increase transit capacity and spur economic development, adding that he’s “proud” of his vote for it. The decision to kill the project was made after the election of streetcar opponent John Vihstadt on Nov. 4, which “sent a powerful message to the Board.”

“We cannot ignore the political realities… this was not a formal referendum, but I believe it serves as a proxy,” Fisette said. “Right now the level of discord is such that I haven’t seen for awhile. It keeps us from addressing other pressing needs in the community.”

Fisette said county staff and the county manager were “caught flat-footed” by organized opposition to the streetcar, which materialized in “the past year or so.” Efforts to communicate the streetcar’s benefits were ineffective, he said.

The cancellation is an improbable victory for Vihstadt and his anti-streetcar ally on the Board, Libby Garvey. Together, they have been pushing the county to cancel the streetcar project and instead work to implement enhanced bus service on Columbia Pike.

Garvey was in attendance at Fisette’s press conference (which can be viewed online) and said afterwards that Fisette’s announcement “was a complete surprise.” Hynes was at an event this morning and “gave a ringing endorsement” of the streetcar, Garvey said.

“I’m delighted,” Garvey said. When asked about the impact the decision will have on businesses and residents who moved to the area in anticipation of the streetcar, she said “people need to understand that we will get a bus rapid transit system going. It will do everything the streetcar could and more. They’re going to be just fine.”

The streetcar plan for Columbia Pike was developed over nearly a decade of community meetings and deliberations and approved in 2006. Its backers have consistently said that consensus was behind the streetcar and it’s what the community wanted, but Fisette conceded that the feeling around the county has changed.

The struggles of the streetcar along H Street NE in Washington, D.C. has only added to the growing sentiment that the streetcar was more trouble than it was worth.

“The D.C. streetcar was a gift for those of us who oppose the streetcar,” Garvey said.

She added that its issues — having to stop for vehicles on its tracks chief among them — had confirmed her doubts about its potential as a transit solution.

“D.C.’s challenges came at a bad time,” Fisette said. “Around the country, rail is challenged. There are battles drawn and arguments made across the country … I’m a little saddened that tomorrow’s headline could be used in another city to bolster an argument against rail.”

Garvey said she doesn’t think the streetcar’s cancellation “changes things at all” with her relationships on the County Board. Minutes later, after Fisette and Garvey finished giving interviews, Garvey approached Fisette and said “good job” and offered to shake his hand. Fisette pulled his hand away and said “no thanks” before walking past her.

Serious conversations about canceling the streetcar began only in the last two weeks, Fisette said. Members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, which had committed to funding 20 percent of the Columbia Pike line to extend it into Bailey’s Crossroads, were disappointed with Fisette and Hynes’ decision.

“This unilateral action by the Arlington County Board destroyed 15 years of a joint effort,” Supervisor Penelope Gross, who represents Bailey’s Crossroads, told the Washington Post. “I think it set back transit options in this part of the region for at least a generation, or more.”

Vihstadt, who was elected to a full four-year term on the County Board, applauded his colleague’s “concession to political reality and to the voices of Arlington voters.”

“I look forward to working with all of my colleagues to renew our focus and concentrate our energies to address the host of priority challenges that our County continues to confront, including schools capacity, infrastructure maintenance, adequate parks and fields space, and affordable housing, as well as the revitalization of both the Columbia Pike and Route 1 corridors,” he said in a statement.

The streetcar’s cancellation makes the words of local political blogger and strategist Ben Tribbett — who spoke to ARLnow.com on election night, after Vihstadt declared victory — look prophetic.

“The streetcar is dead,” Tribbett said at the time. “The voters spoke so overwhelmingly tonight. There’s absolutely no way that [County Board members] Mary [Hynes] and Walter [Tejada] can win re-election if they’re running as pro-streetcar candidates next year. The voters have spoken on this now. It’s over.”

At the press conference, Fisette thanked county staff, “who have given their heart and soul to this project.”

“There is more exciting work to be done,” he said.

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