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Arlington Killed the Columbia Pike Streetcar, But It Still Has to Plan for the Future

A series of expensive misfires spoiled the model suburb's appetite for big, important projects.
RIP. Conceptual rendering from Arlington County Government

With its efficient public transit, low crime rates, and high household incomes, Arlington is often held up as a model urbanized suburb. In part due to the Democrats’ dominance of the five-member county board since 1999, governing Arlington’s 227,146 residents has been an idyll known as “the Arlington Way.”

Then came the streetcar. An extended quarrel over a $333-million plan to build a 7.4-mile streetcar line down Columbia Pike came to a head this fall in the reelection campaign of John Vihstadt—the board’s only non-Democrat and a streetcar opponent. The vote became something of a referendum on the project and, in a sense, on the Arlington Way.

On Tuesday, board chairman Jay Fisette bowed to Vihstad’s win, announcing Arlington will stop all spending on the streetcar project.

“I have come to the conclusion that the only way to move forward together is to discontinue the streetcar project,” 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.”

Arlington’s reputation for consensus and savvy urban planning was born in the 1960s and ’70s when its leaders pushed Metrorail to put the Orange and Yellow lines underground and surrounded its new stops with high-density, mixed-use development rather than sprawl. (Contrast Fairfax, which ran the Orange Line along I-66 and doubled down on strip malls and unfriendly concrete.)

In recent decades, Arlington County has invested in rush-hour bus routes, allowed skyscrapers to bloom in Rosslyn while preserving the suburban character of surrounding neighborhoods, and imported DC’s Capital Bikeshare. All along, the board accommodated community activists and neighborhood associations.

The Way took its first hit from the 2008 recession. “This is a government town,” says Mary Hynes, a board member since 2007. “The government was a very reliable employer until the crash, sequestration, the shutdown. Now they’re nervous about investing in the future.”

Yet the smart-growth wish list continued to grow—a $1-million “superstop” bus hub on Columbia Pike, which opened last year; budget overruns on the ambitiously designed but poorly attended Artisphere cultural center; a planned aquatic park at Pentagon City, now shelved after projected costs exceeded $80 million. Public disgruntlement led to the installation of ex-Republican—now Independent—Vihstadt in a special election in April and his win on November 4.

Today’s announcement that the county would shelve its plan for the Columbia Pike streetcar shows that decade of big-ticket projects with minimal payoff killed many residents’ appetite for forward-thinking suburban planning.

But the streetcar’s demise does not change certain demographic facts. The county is expecting 276,100 residents by 2040, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Those additional people will need to be housed and provisioned and to move along Columbia Pike. By killing the streetcar, Arlington may save money in the short term, but it can’t afford to lose its nerve for big projects.

“Taking a jurisdiction that’s trying to plan for the future and making it one that’s paralyzed by inaction makes it a lot harder to move forward in other ways,” says David Alpert, editor of the urbanist blog Greater Greater Washington.

A version of this article appears in the December 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.