Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpSo, predictions of the death of the streetcar were not premature after all.

The thunderbolt hurled by County Board Chairman Jay Fisette Nov. 18 announced that he and Mary Hynes would honor recent election interpretations and cancel the decade-old plan to make tracks for refurbishing Columbia Pike. Just too darn toxic a passel of issues.

Among the most metaphysically unresolved is whether North Arlingtonians are from Mars and South Arlingtonians from Venus. It’s a sensitive topic that for pols risks “class warfare” against some of those northside Cadillac subdivision drivers who resist spending but seldom visit the Pike. So I queried on both sides of Route 50.

Putting aside stereotypes and oversimplifications, census numbers back the assumption that North Arlington is generally more affluent and white. Latinos are indeed huddled in the South—in the county’s planning zone demographics, whites there make up only 35 percent, compared with a countywide rate of 64 percent and higher.

Democrats were heartened by two separate post-election precinct analyses showing that losing candidate Alan Howze, a streetcar backer, beat overall winner John Vihstadt, the streetcar slayer, among voters around the Pike. It’s an imperfect indicator. The Washington Post’s nongeographic online poll after the streetcar’s cancellation showed 7,000 readers split down the middle on pulling the plug. (An ARLNow poll of nearly 3,300 had 61 percent applauding the cancellation.)

Former state Sen. and County Board member Mary Margaret Whipple told me that while she has campaigned in “great neighborhoods all over Arlington,” many in the Columbia Pike area feel like “they’ve waited patiently for their turn” after so much development and good transit service came to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. “That doesn’t mean every person loves the streetcar, but the civic associations really want it,” she said. “Many felt like the issue had been settled, and then others came in late to change it.”

Jim Pebley, a longtime civic association leader and a streetcar skeptic, sees little difference between north and south in “quality of life, the differential polarity of annual rainfall of government dollars spent or metrics like crime, pollution and availability of services. The difference these days is mainly physiological,” he said. Pebley rattled off categories for which the two zones have rough parity—for development, the north has Rosslyn, the south Crystal City; in fine dining, the north has Clarendon, the South, Shirlington; in transportation arteries, the north has I-66, the south, I-395. “Do we want north and south to be the same?”

John Snyder, an attorney and chair of the advocacy group Arlington Streetcar Now, rejects the notion of a north-south split. “It’s a split between people who envision Arlington as a suburban, car-oriented place versus people who see it as a public transit place,” he told me.

Most people say little about the streetcar, Snyder added. “There were many heavily in favor, and there were loud opponents who falsely told people their taxes are going up and money’s being taken away from schools–they didn’t have time to blame Ebola.”

Snyder, who’s unsure of his organization’s next step, plans to watch Vihstadt and board ally Libby Garvey “to see if they do what they said they would in pursuing a fabulous bus service, which I would applaud.” But in 15 years, Snyder said, “I never heard anyone say they would take buses if only they were bigger.”


Amusingly honest sign seen recently at United Central Methodist Church in Ballston: “Sinners welcome! Come join the crowd.10:30 a.m. Sunday.”