Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Among the many exotic fruits of this year’s Virginia General Assembly session was a quiet act of revenge against the People’s Republic of Arlington.

As revealed in some fine aggressive reporting by Sun-Gazette whirlwind Scott McCaffrey, a pair of key legislators are still hopping mad over Arlington’s victory a year ago in using a lawsuit to head off plans to operate high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on I-395 through Arlington.

The current two-year, $85 billion state budget-which is still being polished despite the de facto end of the session-subtracts a cool $100,000 from Arlington’s share of road maintenance funds.

To House Speaker William Howell (R-Fredericksburg) and Sen. Charles Colgan (D-Prince William), Arlington deserves to be docked said funds because that’s ostensibly what it cost the state to mount a legal defense of since-departed Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer, and a Federal Highway Administration official.

The Howell-Colgan amendment says the $100,000 is “being transferred to reimburse the Commonwealth for legal fees it expended defending a former Secretary of Transportation who was sued in his personal capacity by Arlington County during his term of office and who was not dismissed from the case by Arlington even after his term of office expired. It is the belief of the Commonwealth that it is inappropriate for Arlington County to sue the former secretary in his personal capacity and that this error was compounded when it failed to dismiss him from the suit when he left office.”

Recall that the Arlington County Board had objected to rushing plans to turn HOT lanes over to a private company without a better understanding of the impact of new highway ramps and pollution on minority and low-income neighborhoods. That’s what led to the suit under civil rights laws.

The action made some enemies in Richmond, and in the business community. The Arlington Chamber of Commerce warned the lawsuit could undermine traffic calming, damage the county’s relationship with the private sector and drive up HOT lanes’ cost.

Instead, the state backed down and agreed to reroute the lanes further south, from Garrisonville Road in Stafford County to Edsall Road in Fairfax, and connect at I-495.

Arlington has played the role of errant schoolchild in the eyes of many Richmond solons going back to segregation days in the 1950s. More recently, legislators took revenge for the HOT lanes lawsuit by heading off a plan sought by Arlington last year to expand a hotel tax.

Many would agree there is a place for dynamic, computer-technology-enhanced HOT lanes in the transportation policy tool bag. And private ownership is a promising option in this age of budget austerity.

But there is also an issue of local prerogatives and priorities in a statewide democracy. Note there is no Howell-Cogan amendment to cut $100,000 from the budget of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to make up for his less-than-fruitful investigation of e-mails of a campus-based climate expert.

County Board Chairwoman Mary Hynes reminded me the budget isn’t done yet, and that the fate of the amendment “could go any number of different ways.”

Board member Jay Fisette said, “Whatever direction the legislation has taken, whatever rationale they had, my only hope is that we’re putting it behind us and move forward to focus on more important issues.” By that, he means “education, transportation, quality of life, and economic competitiveness.”

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]