Should Fairfax County seek city status? If you read The Washington Post during the holiday weekend, you might think that the biggest problem in becoming a city is what to call the new entity.
What the news items didn’t mention was that the idea of city status was just one bullet point on slide #18 of a transportation and road funding presentation at the Board of Supervisors’ two-day retreat at Frying Pan Park.
In Fairfax County, as in 93 of the Commonwealth’s 95 counties, road construction, operations, and maintenance are the responsibility of the state Department of Transportation (VDOT), not the county. That is why reductions in state funding for roads in Virginia present severe and serious challenges for localities. The state’s Transportation (Construction) Trust Fund (TTF) will have zero dollars for construction by 2018. TTF monies were diverted from construction to maintenance beginning in 2002 and, by 2014, the TTF will no longer be able to fully match available federal funds. There has been no General Assembly action to restore the transportation funding originally authorized under HB 3202, which created the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, but which failed to provide the dollars, or even most of the mechanisms needed to obtain those revenues.
Although Fairfax County imposed an additional 11 cents for transportation on the commercial real estate tax rate, obtained stimulus dollars for some projects, received proffers and developer contributions, and passed bond referenda for transportation in 2004 and 2007, significant transportation needs remain. Street repairs, repaving, median mowing, signals, and signage, which all are VDOT responsibilities, are essentially unfunded, except for emergencies. There is no state money for future transportation project design, nor for maintaining and expanding public transportation services.
The lack of state funding has encouraged General Assembly legislative and VDOT administrative efforts to push transportation responsibilities from the state to the localities, often referred to as “devolution.” Taking over the roadway system would give more local control, potentially better customer service, reduce layers of review, and give more ability to integrate land use with transportation. But there are extraordinary costs, major staffing implications, legal and legislative hurdles, and liability issues for localities.
The last full-scale feasibility study for road takeover was conducted in 1990, and was rejected because of its high cost: a tax rate increase of three to 20 cents was forecast, and there were serious concerns about assuming responsibilities that belonged to the state. At the retreat last week, the Board learned that, under the current state funding formula for secondary roads in Virginia, cities and towns receive nearly twice as much funding per lane mile than the three Northern Virginia counties of Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William. So is it any wonder that localities are forced to consider how to tackle the devolution question?
One approach might be city status; a second approach would mimic how Arlington and Henrico Counties operate their roads. Those were the only two counties to opt out of the state system in 1932, when the state moved to centralize transportation needs under the VDOT umbrella. Those were the days when Fairfax County was the leading dairy producer in the state. The county’s position today as the economic engine of the Commonwealth demands new approaches to funding our transportation infrastructure. While I doubt that city status provides the magic bullet, a thorough examination of options might provide a template for addressing the challenges ahead.