The Time Has Come for Local Control of Local Roads

It’s Spring, and that means the grass is already growing tall on secondary roadways in Fairfax County.  VDOT intends to stick to last year’s schedule of only two or three mowings, even though six are needed. Tall grass disrupts drivers’ line of sight, creates safety issues, and reduces property values as our streets look cheap and in disrepair. In addition, the effects of the last two winters and limited secondary road repaving, are beginning to be seen. Our neighborhood streets are peppered with potholes full of uneven, temporary fill, curbs and storm drains are crumbling, the state has ceased funding traffic calming measures and little hope for change is in sight. The State’s priorities are properly with large commuter routes, such as the Beltway and Interstate 66, but that means our neighborhood streets will continue to suffer.

A relic of a bygone era, Virginia is one of only three states where the state, not localities, owns and maintains local roads. Controlled by rural counties that do not need more road funding, the General Assembly has eliminated construction funding for secondary (local) roads and significantly reduced maintenance funding. Recent state funding initiatives are temporary fixes only, and the state funding formula based on lane-miles instead of vehicle-miles-traveled hurts Fairfax as well. 

We are not resigned to this fate, however. Decades ago, the Hampton Roads jurisdictions opted to become cities to better meet their transportation needs as an urbanizing area. Two counties – Arlington and Henrico – cut their own deals with the state to handle their own roads. A year and a half ago our County Executive recommended that Fairfax follow suit and consider negotiating with the state for a local takeover of at least some roads. County staff has interviewed each Virginia locality that owns and maintains its own roads. All reported that they are happy they do and, in fact, many expressed their disbelief that Fairfax has not yet followed suit.

Both County staff and our citizens’ Transportation Advisory Commission (TAC) have identified clear benefits to the County Executive’s proposal. These include, but are not limited to, enhanced influence in transportation decision-making, improved responsiveness and accountability and increased flexibility in establishing priorities and standards. Despite these advantages, some County leaders are reluctant to move forward on this issue. They argue that maintaining and improving our transportation infrastructure has long been a state function and follow the tired path of asking for money from Richmond, knowing it won’t arrive.

I agree that funding is an issue and any transfer of responsibility would have to come with a transfer of at least current levels of state funding. Further enhancements to our transportation system would likely require local dollars. But remember, a local system means all our local dollars stay right here in Fairfax, instead of Fairfax dollars going to Richmond where only a fraction return.  A good first step toward locally enhanced funding would be removing the Decal Fee, which generates roughly $27 million, from the General Fund and apportioning it to transportation projects. 

I do not suggest that moving towards local control of local roads is a simple issue. Much care and thought must be given to any potential change. But Fairfax County is an urbanizing suburb and it needs a 21st century system for its local roads, one where decision-making authority rests here, not in Richmond.


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