The difficulty of the United States and thus the world to confront the worsening crisis of global warming is underscored by the resistance – even in well-to-do communities – to invest the financial and political capital in public transit and other infrastructure necessary for reducing carbon emissions.
Take, for example, Arlington County and other Virginia communities, just west of Washington D.C. You might think that this area of well-educated and politically savvy people with median household incomes over $100,000 would be at the forefront of doing whatever is necessary to get people out of their cars and into mass transit.
After all, scientists warn that a rise in temperatures by more than 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial days will wreak havoc on the earth — and we are already halfway there.
Yet, Arlington, which sits between the District and other close-in communities such as Fairfax County and Falls Church city, is turning its back on proposals for light rail that could reduce traffic congestion and help the environment. Arlington’s new ten-year transportation plan looks only to make marginal improvements in bus service inside the county.
A big part of the problem is political. Although the County Board has a Democratic majority, Tea Party Republicans found a winning issue in opposing a light-rail Streetcar for Columbia Pike, a corridor that runs through a poorer part of South Arlington, which has been historically home to a multi-racial population. The predominantly white voters in North Arlington rebelled against this investment in South Arlington, even though the state and regional agencies had agreed to pay for much of it.
Some of Arlington’s Greens also joined the opposition to the light-rail system, arguing that it would encourage gentrification.
So, in November 2014, an anti-Streetcar Republican trounced a pro-Streetcar Democrat, prompting two of the remaining Democrats on the County Board to flip their votes and kill the Streetcar, which had been in development for more than a decade. With the Columbia Pike Streetcar out of the way, two new Democrats were elected to the County Board this November.
In other words, the lesson that Arlington Democrats learned was to avoid proposing a light-rail system, at least for the more racially mixed South Arlington. The Orange/Silver Metro subway lines already serve a major corridor through North Arlington.
Though some residents of other North Arlington areas, such as along Lee Highway, have expressed interest in improved transit, it would be politically difficult for Democrats on the County Board to spend more money on the richer, whiter parts of North Arlington after the demise of South Arlington’s Streetcar.
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Hence, Arlington is going small ball on transit, tweaking the county’s internal bus system and making some modest moves to improve bicycle and pedestrian routes.
Once Burned, Twice Shy
After the Streetcar defeat – and knowing that a vastly more expensive subway line for Columbia Pike was out of the question – I urged the County Board to consider a third option, a modern Sky Train that would run above Columbia Pike and connect to the Annandale area of Fairfax County, another underserved community with clogged roadways.
Through some of the narrow sections of Columbia Pike, I suggested using suspension bridge engineering to reduce the number of supports. Plus, if done with enough aesthetic touches, the Sky Train could become an iconic image for the mostly-down-in-the-dumps Columbia Pike, which once was the principal route between Virginia and Washington D.C. and served as a Freedom Trail for African-Americans escaping slavery during the Civil War.
The Sky Train would have two key advantages, I noted. It would be much cheaper than a subway and it would operate on a different plane than the Streetcar, thus avoiding some of the legitimate concerns about a Streetcar intermingling with car and pedestrian traffic.
There was also the possibility that a simultaneous plan could be proposed for Lee Highway in North Arlington to undercut opposition among white voters who didn’t want to invest tax dollars in the poorer, more racially mixed South Arlington. But the County Board – once burned, twice shy – apparently wanted to hear nothing more about light-rail systems of any kind.
So, with Arlington’s politicians still feeling pain from the Streetcar debacle, the county is looking forward to the next ten years without any game-changing transportation innovations for either its residents or the people who live to the west of Arlington. Almost surely, those roads leading into Washington will remain clogged with car traffic spewing out carbon dioxide.
As a microcosm of the challenges that many other communities around the globe will face, the Arlington experience shows how an unlikely coalition of forces – from the Tea Party opposing any government spending to Greens objecting to gentrification that often follows improved mass transit – can combine to frustrate the goal of reducing carbon emissions.
This one county’s capitulation to such political challenges doesn’t speak well to the sense of urgency that is needed to combat global warming. Despite the looming calamity, Arlington, a community that has the money and supposedly the political desire to fight climate change, finds it too hard to do so.