The proposed Columbia Pike streetcar could be a defining issue in the three-way race for Arlington County Board.
The estimated $249 million transit system would connect the Bailey's Crossroads/Skyline area of Fairfax County with Pentagon City, where it may eventually connect with a proposed Route 1 streetcar.
At the center of the storm is Democratic incumbent Libby Garvey, who won her board seat in March, filling a term that expires in December.
Garvey faces Republican Matt Wavro and Green Party candidate Audrey Clement — both vocal critics of the streetcar.
In July, Garvey abstained from a vote to move forward on the Columbia Pike trolley system, saying she needed more time to study the matter.
She said this week that she's still talking to people, reading documents and gathering information — but that she's leaning toward supporting a bus rapid-transit system similar to what's found in parts of Europe. Many such systems use articulated buses, sometimes referred to as "accordion buses" because of the apparatus holding the cars together.
"It's politics," Garvey said. "There's pressure from the folks who are supporting the streetcar. They're upset with me. There's pressure from the folks who are against it. They're upset with me. I'm interested with doing the right thing. That's my pressure on myself. I need to do some due diligence and really study this issue. I don't just shoot from the hip. Maybe Matt and Audrey have studied it for years. I don't know. That's what I've been spending most of my time on as a board member… I've been working really hard to gather information and make an informed decision."
Garvey said the one thing she's sure of so far is that the county needs to engage the community in a "robust conversation" so that everyone involved understands what options are available. She hopes to see a cost-benefit analysis, suspecting that it will show a bus rapid-transit system is the best bet for the Pike, at least at first.
"So, where I am at this point, and what I don't think people quite appreciate, is it's a transit system we're designing," Garvey said. "Certainly we've been designing it with the thought in mind that it's going to be a streetcar. But it's a transit system, and it could be another vehicle without all that much difficulty in change — and save a whole lot of money."
Wavro's campaign issued a news release at 1:12 a.m. July 24, not long after the streetcar vote, criticizing Garvey for not being able to make up her mind on the matter after nearly 120 days in office.
Wavro, in a recent interview, said he was "somewhat surprised" by Garvey's abstention. He said he attended a community meeting held by Arlington and Fairfax counties, and their consultants, that featured "charts galore," and had seen a tremendous amount of information about the project online.
"This issue's been studied and studied and studied," Wavro said. "So, it didn't strike me as a very valid concern that there's not enough information out there. Granted, the information they did put out there didn't address all of the concerns of the community. I think that would have been a much more sound footing to abstain. But in those cases, when I'm elected to the county board, if the county staff and hired consultants can't make a case for something with all the information they do put out there through board reports, and planning initiatives… If a case hasn't been made, then it's a 'no' vote rather than an abstention."
Wavro, a consultant, added: "After 120 days, if I didn't come to a conclusion on the No. 1 issue facing a company I was working for, I probably wouldn't have that consulting gig any more. And we should hold our elected officials to that same standard. I don't know anyone else working and paying taxes in Arlington that has that same luxury."
Clement accused Garvey of "waffling," calling the July abstention a missed opportunity to show leadership and take a stand on an important issue.
"That's the issue. She should've taken a stand," Clement said. "In my opinion, she is afraid of the Democratic establishment. For whatever reason, she is not immensely popular with the Democratic establishment. She's apparently sensitive about that. And she doesn't want to antagonize that. But I believe they're on the wrong track."
Streetcars are better suited to major transportation arteries that have the space for an extra lane, Clement said, not secondary roads that go through major business corridors.
Wavro supports an articulated bus system for the Pike. Clement supports deploying double-decker buses to handle more people.
"That's getting into a detail that actually I'm not really sure is appropriate for a board member," Garvey said. "Right now, we need a modern transit system. And next we need to look at the kind of vehicle. So the question now is not designing the type of vehicle. It's is it going to run on tracks and wires? Or tires? It could be battery-operated. Internal combustion. The vehicle is something different. And I'm not a transit specialist."
Patch and Arlington Indpendent Media will host a live candidate's forum at 7 p.m. Thursday.