The end of March is a special time of year. Not only does it come on the heels of my favorite holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, but each year it offers me an opportunity to reflect and remind myself why I entered public service.
This year is a particularly significant milestone because it marks 20 years from the day – March 30, 1995 – that I was sworn in as Providence District Supervisor and began my journey in elected office.
Serving Northern Virginia is the great honor of my life, and together we’ve come a long way in two decades.
In 1995, the plan from the 1960s envisioning the Silver Line to link Tysons, Reston and Dulles with downtown Washington and other parts of the National Capital Region was gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. The Merrifield area, adjacent to Falls Church, was a jumble of sprawling industrial parks. Fairfax had no plan to protect our environment. And the tech boom, which today helps to fuel our region’s economic vibrancy, was still in its infancy.
When I ran for Providence Supervisor in 1995, I made the extension of Metrorail to Tysons and Dulles a top priority. It was a long, arduous path, but ultimately we overcame the temporary setbacks and hurdles and it was a great day when Phase One opened last summer.
Phase One of the Silver Line, extending from East Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, is already exceeding expectations in terms of ridership. Its completion will continue to transform Tysons and the Dulles Corridor – and provide the missing rail link from the nation’s capital to the region’s major international airport. The list of champions who made this project a reality is a long one, but I am proud to have spent my 20 years in elected office fighting to get it done.
In neighboring Merrifield, we’ve transformed those sprawling industrial parks into the bustling Mosaic District, bringing in new opportunities for recreation, work, shopping, and dining. We’re attracting vibrant start-up companies like Custom Ink by creating the kinds of communities in which the best and brightest from around the world want to live and work. The revitalization of Merrifield started as a series of community visioning exercises. The community came up with the plan. I just worked to make it happen.
From 1976 to 1995, Fairfax County lost 30% of its open space to development. It was clear something had to be done. So we passed the county’s first comprehensive environmental agenda that today is a model replicated in communities across the country. We set a goal to protect 10 percent of our landmass as open space or parkland. We set an ambitious 30-year goal to increase the tree canopy, and today 40 percent of Fairfax County is covered by trees. We adopted forward-thinking urban storm water management practices into our plan. We created the 41-mile-long Cross County Trail, linking the entire county from Great Falls to the Occoquan. And environmental protection and preservation are now a part of every decision we make in Northern Virginia.
Since 1995, we have succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams in making Northern Virginia a global leader in the expanding technology economy. In fact, I like to point out to my Congressional colleagues from California that Silicon Valley is merely the Northern Virginia of the West Coast.
Our economic success was built on direct federal employment and federal contracting, and they remain pillars of our regional economy and prosperity. But today we’re branching out by attracting new businesses in new industries and nurturing a vibrant start-up community. All of the major tech players and some you’ve never heard of (yet) can be found in Northern Virginia and we continue to offer these businesses a motivated, well-educated workforce and a great quality of life.
Throughout these two decades, I’ve been an advocate of and participant in efforts to work on a regional basis whenever possible and practical. We are a region of wonderful, vibrant communities, each with their own unique offerings, but all with mutual goals and aspirations for our future. The positive changes in Merrifield and Tysons also benefit the residents of Falls Church. The Silver Line opens a new direct portal to Tysons and Reston for residents of Arlington. Environmental success in Fairfax benefits the entire region. And all of our communities benefit from the employment opportunities provided by the growing technology sector.
So I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished together, but more importantly, I’m excited about the things we can and will accomplish in the future.
We can continue to grow our economy by building on our strengths in the federal sector and encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship to develop new industries. We can make Tysons the model for transforming a classic sprawling, asphalt-covered “edge city” into a walkable, sustainable urban center. And we can continue working together to seize the opportunities and tackle the challenges that come our way.
Gerry Connolly represents Virginia 11th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.