Fairfax's Looming Transportation Crisis
Fairfax County has long faced difficult transportation problems, but today it faces a transportation crisis which, if not met, could choke off our economic recovery and put a host of our long-term goals out of reach. Strong, creative leadership is needed at the county level to meet this crisis head on.
In Virginia, the State is responsible for building and maintaining almost all of our roads, from the interstates to the smallest cul-de-sac. Currently, the State is failing to meet those obligations. This Spring, VDOT eliminated construction funding for secondary roads, which includes Braddock and Guinea Roads, as well as smaller ones, with no current plans ever to revive that funding.
That means, absent a change in state policy, there will be no construction of state roads necessary to get people in and out of a newly revitalized Tysons Corner. It also means no new intersection improvements, longer turn lanes, added lanes or even traffic signals. Nothing. Ever.
Maintenance funds are in trouble as well. I’ve written before about decreased mowing by state crews, and now we are told that additional state budget cuts mean not all the potholes, storm drains and curbs will be repaired. Next year, the state will not repave any secondary roads in Fairfax County.
Why did this happen? Well, the economic downturn has created a large budget shortfall for the state that the General Assembly and Governor decided to meet, in part, by significantly reducing transportation funding. First, all construction funds were eliminated. Second, maintenance funds were reduced significantly. A state funding formula for transportation maintenance that distributes funds based solely on lane miles only makes matters worse. A one-mile stretch of Braddock Road with three lanes is three lane miles, while a three mile stretch of a one-lane country road in Page County is also three lane miles. Density and vehicle trips per day are left out of the formula, so each of these hypothetical projects receives the same maintenance funding. This inequality greatly restricts Fairfax County’s ability to sustain its infrastructure.
Without new construction funds we can’t build any new roads or even improve existing ones. Fairfax County is expected to gain 250,000 new residents in the next thirty years and despite our mass transit improvements, many will still drive cars. Without new roads, our congestion will harm our economy.
Without new roads into Tysons, how can we build 80,000 residential units there? If we don’t improve Tysons, we won’t have the economic growth to fund the services we want. We need to fund both improvements to and maintenance of our transportation system or our roadways will deteriorate and won’t be able to support existing traffic, much less new traffic.
It is because of this dire situation that County Executive Tony Griffin suggested to the Board of Supervisors that the County look into taking over its transportation system from the state. While the newspapers focused on the option of converting from a County to a City, that is but one option the table.
Fairfax could remain a county, but negotiate with the state to transfer to us the money, people and equipment otherwise designated for Fairfax and we would build and maintain the roads here on our own. Arlington handles its transportation needs in this way. Achieving this option would require successful negotiations with the state, which may be difficult.
A second option is to seek to become a city. Under the state formula cities get more transportation funding than counties. Such a move would require a referendum to pass in the County, and approval by the General Assembly. Neither is a given. Cities have more taxing power than counties, and some are concerned that a new city would raise taxes.
A third option would be to keep the current system, but to supplement state efforts with county efforts. The county could raise funds or establish public-private partnerships to build projects on top of the state system. The problem with that is that the property tax is our principal means of revenue, and those taxes are high enough. County spending needs to be cut $100 million next year just to hold tax payments steady, and more cuts will be needed the following year. Where would we get the money for roads?
Our transportation crisis is grave and the stakes are high. But I am optimistic. Fairfax County has the brightest, most innovative, most hard-working people in the world. If anyone can figure out how to get out of this mess, it’s the people of Fairfax County. It’s our future. Let’s stop talking and start working. Over the next several months, I will offer thoughts on how we should address our transportation needs. Please call, write or email me with your suggestions.