Fairfax County, Virginia, a thriving urban Mid-Atlantic jurisdiction, and Pitkin County, Colorado, a rural mountainous area, are separated by distance, geography, physical size, and population, but the issues faced by both are very similar.
Only the scale is different. A conversation with elected officials in either jurisdiction reveals that transportation, health care, and affordable housing top the list of needs for their residents.
Few Fairfax County residents would dispute our need for improved multi-modal transportation in Northern Virginia — more buses and bike lanes, Rail to Dulles, Columbia Pike Transit, the HOT Lanes, and better road connections to make getting around more efficient, more pleasant, and less time-consuming. In Pitkin County, nearly half of the workers come into the area by bus, some commuting 90 miles one way from across the mountains. Parking is at a premium in tiny Aspen (pop. 5,800), so they use “interceptor lots,” their version of our “park and ride” lots. Workers park their vehicles a few miles outside of town and take a free bus to work. The Roaring Fork Transit Authority, jointly created by the city and county, now is the second largest transit system in Colorado, carrying more than four million passengers and bicycles year-round. Candidly, residents sponsored a number of tax initiatives that provide dedicated funding support for transportation.
Excellent health care is available in Fairfax County, with our world-class Inova Health System and specialty services at the ready. Pitkin County’s topography alone creates a challenge there, and during the winter, the Ski Patrol often is the first responder to calls for help. Aspen’s small hospital was the first to test surgical patients for HIV; Aspen also now has several dispensaries for medical marijuana. It is access to health care that is problematic now, according to Aspen’s mayor, a situation faced by all local jurisdictions, including Fairfax County. As the mayor discussed his city’s health care accessibility issue with the regional officials attending the fall meeting of the National Association of Regional Councils’ Board of Directors last week, heads nodded in agreement around the table. The cost of health care for employees is similar regardless of where you live and work.
Affordable housing could be an oxymoron in a community like Pitkin County, where huge homes seem to be the rule, rather than the exception. One of the ads in the local newspaper noted that the price for a 15,000 square foot home had been slashed – from $15 million to $11.5 million! Fairfax County homes are neither that large nor that expensive, but housing for the workforce and less affluent residents is a challenge we share with Pitkin County. According to Patti Clapper, a Pitkin County Commissioner, hundreds of units of affordable housing have been added during the past several years, available through a lottery for county residents and workers who have lived there for at least four years. I saw small affordable neighborhoods of zero lot-line homes, as well as duplexes and apartments, ranging in price from the low $100,000s to $350,000. Some units are for rent; most are for outright purchase. The official from New Hampshire didn’t think that was much of a bargain, but it sounded like a pretty good deal to me.
Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is quoted often that “all politics is local.” A slightly revised version would say that, regardless of where you are, “most local issues are comparable.” They are people issues, the everyday realities of life, and must be addressed where we live, at the local level.