Photo by wagaboodlemum on Flickr.

Two Virginia political candidates have called for a voter referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar. This is a bad idea.

Alan Howze, one of the two, is running for Arlington County Board in November’s special election. He just lost in a relatively low-turnout special election against John Vihstadt, who made the streetcar one of his main issues. The other is Patrick Hope, one of ten candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring US Representative Jim Moran.

But a referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar is unecessary both practially and legally. It wouldn’t change the status of the project in any material way and would just add extra time and expense to a process that has already been clear and democratic.

Debate is over for the streetcar

There is not much left to discuss about the relative merits of a streetcar versus its alternatives. In July 2012, the county board chose the streetcar after a thorough analysis of alternatives. This concluded a process that began in the 1980’s and started considering transit options in 2004. 

After the announcement, those who insisted that bus-only options could generate the same return for less cost challenged the decision. In response, the county commissioned another study by an independent firm. The results echoed the previous analysis that the streetcar is the best option for Columbia Pike.

When the facts are this clear, a prolonged campaign on the merits of a streetcar will not reveal anything new about the project. However, there would be plenty of opportunity for misinformation to spread widely and affect voters on election day.

This tactic doesn’t make sense for streetcar supporters

It’s understandable for opponents of a project to seek to delay implementation. They don’t want to see something built and hope that a delay will give them more time to persuade people of their arguments or add time and expense to a project that will make it look worse than it is. We have seen this in DC, where delays to the zoning update have just added more time to a process and just watered down the changes more and more.

But a referendum that would just lengthen the process and muddy the waters doesn’t make sense coming from project proponents like Howze or Delegate Hope. At best, the referendum would confirm the project is popular but delay the actual project. At worst, it would give ammunition to opponents and introduce further delays as political fights continue.

A referendum would also let opponents divert the argument away from facts. By just saying, “Let the voters decide,” they would deflect any heat about false facts or mistruths they have spread about other options for the corridor.

Results would be meaningless anyway

In Virginia, a referendum is required when a local government wants to sell bonds. But neither Arlington nor Fairfax county plans to fund the streetcar with bonds. An “advisory” referendum would not have any material effect on the project. Opponents could have petitioned for a binding referendum, but if they thought they had the numbers for such a petition, they would have done it long ago.

Moreover, to hold any non-bond-related referendum, the counties would need permission from the General Assembly in Richmond. That means another layer of government to wade through for a local project that won’t use any significant state funds.

Northern Virginia already has enough problems getting the state to give it control over specific regional issues. It doesn’t make sense to punt this issue back to Richmond for something they never had to be involved with in the first place.

Is it just politics?

Supporters, including Howze himself, already argue that even if unpopular now, the streetcar will ultimately prove popular, as Metro and Capital Bikeshare, and other county transportation decisions are today. It’s good that these candidates feel confident enough in the project that they think it can stand up to a direct electoral challenge. But there’s no need to do so, the project is good, and the process has been clear.

So why hold a referendum? Hope might be seeking to stand out in a crowded field and perhaps draw some votes from streetcar opponents while remaining a supporter of the streetcar.

Howze seems to be trying to have it both ways on the streetcar: continue to appeal to voters who support it, but also give opponents less reason to work against his election. Howze started out his nomination campaign equivocating on the streetcar, and only later came out as a strong supporter.

Meanwhile, Vihstadt was able to bring together blocs of voters, often who opposed a particular county project. They were more motivated to turn out, especially in a special election. Howze may have a greater advantage in November when many voters might already be at the polls and would pick a Democrat purely based on party identification, but he also seems to be trying to hedge his bets by running to the middle on issues.

Instead, Howze, already on the defensive after losing last month’s special election, should find ways to attract more pro-streetcar voters in the regular election in November. That would provide far more security for the project than trying to bet on its popularity via a referendum that ultimately wouldn’t matter.