By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ARLINGTON, Va. — A GOP General Assembly candidate in Democrat-heavy Arlington County is challenging a controversial streetcar project, even as Gov. Terry McAuliffe tries to sweeten the deal with up to $65 million in new state funding.
“I will introduce legislation to give voters a right to say whether they want (the streetcars) or not,” said David Foster, who is running to fill the House of Delegates seat vacated by Bob Brink.
Without a referendum, Arlingtonians dissed the project this year by electing independent John Vihstadt to the county board on an anti-streetcar platform. Still, a Democrat majority controls the purse strings.
“If the facts were on the board’s side, they wouldn’t need to be spending $650,000 on public relations,” Foster told Watchdog.org.
“The voters are saying streetcars are not practical or affordable,” said the attorney who has served on the Arlington and state boards of education.
County officials say the state’s cash infusion means they won’t have to seek federal funds. Yet Washington hadn’t offered any money, and Richmond’s contribution barely covers 10 percent of ballooning construction expenses.
As reported by Watchdog, Arlington’s streetcar venture — a planned 4.9-mile route on Columbia Pike downtown and a 2.7-mile segment along Route 1 in Crystal City — has run into cost overruns before a shovel of dirt has been turned.
The latest figures show Columbia Pike’s price tag rising from $284 million to $358 million. Crystal City’s shorter line is up from $140 million to $227 million. That works out to more than $70 million a mile for construction.
Last week, a member of the county’s Transit Advisory Committee called ridership forecasts inflated, too.
“The county is projecting about 59,000 daily riders for the streetcar. What they have done is add the Columbia Pike ridership of 37,000 (by 2035) to the 22,000 riders expected in Crystal City,” said Joe Warren.
“This would only be valid if all the riders on the Columbia Pike streetcar continued into Crystal City,” Warren said. In fact, only one in 10 commuters follow such a path.
Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit says ginned-up ridership numbers are designed to bolster support for light rail over buses, which are far cheaper, more flexible and less prone to clogging street traffic.
Warren, a transportation economist, also disputed the official assertion that streetcars can carry more riders because they have more seats.
“That’s imbecilic,” he responds. “What counts is ‘through-put.’ Streetcars have a minute delay between cars, whereas buses can run one behind another,” he explained.
“Articulated (double-length) buses can carry 40,000 riders a day without requiring a dedicated traffic lane.”
No U.S. streetcar system comes close to 30,000. Portland, Ore., ranks highest at 11,200.
Richard “Rip” Sullivan, Foster’s Democratic opponent in the 48th District election Aug. 19, has tried to finesse the streetcar debate in a county that already has 11 Metro stations along three separate lines (four by the end of July).
On the night of his primary victory, Sullivan was asked about Arlington’s streetcar controversy. He responded that he was going to bed. Sullivan didn’t respond to Watchdog’s subsequent inquiries.
Vihstadt, who blazed a political trail for Foster by becoming the first non-Democrat to win a local board election in 15 years, said the McAuliffe administration is heading down the wrong track in Arlington.
With Virginia tax revenues falling $439 million short of projections in the fiscal year ending June 30, he blasted state officials for “not doing (their) homework.”
“Many transportation projects for which there is broad public consensus will be sacrificed,” Vihstadt predicted.
Bob Chase, director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, said the state’s pledge of up to $65 million came “seemingly out of the blue.”
“It is unclear what analysis the commonwealth conducted,” Chase said. “Arlington keeps saying it needs streetcars to meet 2050/2060 (rider) demand. Last time I checked the calendar, we ain’t quite there.”
This article was updated at 10:55 p.m.
Kenric Ward is chief of Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau. Contact him at [email protected] or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward
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