Rendering from Arlington County.

Arlington voters will pick a replacement for county board member Chris Zimmerman in a special election April 4

April 8. While the two candidates have a lot in common, their take on the Columbia Pike streetcar sets them apart. One calls it an important part of the county’s transportation network, while the other says it’s a waste of money.

Democratic nominee Alan Howze, who was selected in a January caucus, and independent John Vihstadt aren’t that far apart on most issues. Both support the county’s efforts on smart growth and affordable housing. They also both support the county’s move to establish a new homeless shelter at Courthouse, and they agree on some national issues, like marriage equality.

But they’re divided over the Columbia Pike streetcar, the 4.9-mile line between Pentagon City and Bailey’s Crossroads which has the support of most of the current board, but strong opposition from some.

Vihstadt is a member of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, an anti-streetcar group which argues the streetcar is too expensive and will not move as many people as estimated. If elected, Vihstadt would join board member Libby Garvey, who also opposes the streetcar.

He told the pro-streetcar group Arlington Streetcar Now that he wants to evaluate how BRT performs on the Crystal City/Potomac Yard transitway before committing funds to any project on Columbia Pike. AST has been advocating for Bus Rapid Transit on Columbia Pike, but their comments, and Vihstadt’s statement here, glosses over the issue that BRT is not possible on Columbia Pike since there is no room for a dedicated lane, unlike for Crystal City-Potomac Yard.

Vihstadt would split the money dedicated to the project between buses on Columbia Pike and other projects throughout the county, which is appealing to some voters elsewhere in the county that want more resources spent on projects in their area.

Despite initially being publicly on the fence about the project, Howze does support the streetcar. He believes it will move more people and help support new development. In a position paper on the subject, he rejects the criticism that funds for the project will take away resources from other county priorities like schools, noting that schools take up half of the county’s capital projects budget, and the streetcar hovers at around 10%. 

But it’s clear that calls to rein in county spending have had an effect on him. Howze has repeated that he’s not someone who will just rubberstamp projects and not pay attention to costs. He says that “no project has a blank check” in regards to the county’s proposed Long Bridge Aquatic Center. At a recent candidates’ forum, he said the county spent too much money on a new dog park in Clarendon.

The special election’s unusual date means that voter turnout will be low. Howze will have to count on Democrats being happy with the way the county has performed and the priorities it has set. Vihstadt, meanwhile, is banking on support from unhappy voters across the political spectrum who want to reverse or slow down the pace of some projects in the county. He says being the only non-Democrat on the board would be a strength, arguing the board needs more political diversity.

At the same time, there is a primary election coming up on June 8 to select a nominee to succeed retiring Rep. Jim Moran. That primary features many local leaders in Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax, which means it has gotten a lot of attention while many voters may not be focusing closely on the county board race.

Some observers think that by taking a reluctant stance toward many county projects, Howze may generate lower levels of enthusiasm among his potential supporters as compared to Vihstadt, who has been trying to appeal to various groups of voters that have a specific bone of contention with the current board. If few people vote and enough disgruntled Democrats in Arlington vote with independents and Republicans, Vihstadt is likely to win.

The victor will not have much time to rest, as the winner will have to defend his seat again in November’s general election.