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Sun Gazette: Question on streetcar referendum headed to Va. attorney general Print


Created:  July 31, 2014


Arlington government officials have long said they can’t hold an advisory referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar because state law prohibits them from doing so. Now, a higher authority might weigh in.

Attorney General Mark Herring will be asked to rule whether Arlington has the authority to hold advisory referendums or not.

“I can ask him – I will ask him,” Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th) said during a July 30 legislative wrap-up before the Kiwanis Club of Arlington.

Hope, among a handful of Arlington elected officials who have come out in support of a referendum, said he will make a formal request for an advisory opinion from the attorney general’s office.

While not having the force of law, such an opinion will at least provide detailed legal background and confirm, or reject, the view of Arlington leaders that they can’t hold a public vote on the controversial streetcar project.

Some of Virginia’s jurisdictions do have the authority to hold voter referendums. Virginia Beach voters in 2012 approved a referendum calling on the City Council to move forward on efforts to bring the Hampton Roads “Tide” streetcar network to their city.

Arlington officials say they don’t have the same authority to send such measures to voters.

Arlington leaders could do the next best thing – put a general-obligation-bond referendum related to the streetcar on the ballot – but say they will not use general-obligation funds for the 5-mile streetcar line.

Under Virginia law, legislators have the power to ask the attorney general’s office for a ruling on matters of legal or constitutional division. Those opinions are not always followed: Former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli once ruled that Fairfax County did not have the legal authority to charge other jurisdictions (including Arlington) for renovations to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, but Fairfax school officials ignored the ruling and sent out the bills anyway.

During his bid for the Democratic nomination for the 8th Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, Hope said Arlington officials should find a way to put the streetcar project to a public vote. Others who joined in that call included then-Treasurer Frank O’Leary, Commissioner of Revenue Ingrid Morroy and County Board candidate Alan Howze.

All are Democrats, and their advocacy represented a significant break from the Democratic majority on the County Board, which has been opposed to a referendum for a number of reasons – including the possibility that the public might reject the streetcar concept.

In the upcoming 48th District House of Delegates special election, both Democrat Richard “Rip” Sullivan Jr. and Republican David Foster have promised to introduce legislation in Richmond to permit Arlington to hold the referendum. Hope, the most senior Arlington member of the House of Delegates, said it would be “highly unusual” for the legislature to act in addressing one specific case.

“A bill can be brought up if someone wants to bring it up,” he said. “I don’t know how that is going to play out.”

Hope was critical of those who rejected the referendum idea out of hand. Some streetcar supporters and good-government advocates contend Arlington shouldn’t emulate California, a state whose long history of often conflicting ballot initiatives has at times left it politically paralyzed.

It’s “a little insulting” to compare a streetcar referendum to California’s situation, Hope said.

“This is a once-in-a-generation project – it is a big deal and it has divided our county,” he said.

The County Board majority of Jay Fisette, Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada supports a financial plan for the streetcar project that will eschew federal dollars and rely more on local and regional funds and a bigger contribution from the local business community. Board members Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt are against the streetcar project entirely, advocating an updated bus system instead.

Both sides are engaged in a game of beat the clock: If streetcar opponents can ensure Vihstadt’s re-election in the November election, they then need to knock off just one pro-streetcar County Board member (Hynes or Tejada) in the 2015 general election to kill the project before construction starts. Supporters of the streetcar are working to find ways to get the project moving before that could happen.