Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Transportation Funding: A Mixed Bag for Falls Church

The few members of the public who were present in the City Council Chamber Monday night saw Metro Board Chairman and Washington D.C. City Council Member Jack Evans at his persuasive best as he outlined Metro’s financial and operational conditions. All Falls Church citizens should view this segment of the video from that night to understand the current state of Metro. Mr. Evans organized his speech around three numbers: $300 million annually needed for operations from the federal government, which currently pays nothing for operations; $18 billion required for urgent capital improvements, including a new tunnel under the Potomac River; and $2.5 billion for presently unfunded pension liability.

Metro has severely declined behind the opaque curtain of its management and bureaucracy. As a regular rider, I would mention bad experiences at regional government meetings that invariably brought forth not necessary reforms, but fervent assurances that my examples of deteriorating service were exceptional occurrences due to unique circumstances. Likewise, advocacy for dedicated regional funding fell on deaf ears in Richmond and Annapolis. Recent events have now made addressing these matters unavoidable.

Diminishing Value

The point City Council made last Monday to Metro officials is that the value proposition for Falls Church is tenuous at best, and we are currently reviewing it. First, the increasing subsidies demanded of us are starting to become a significant budget issue, potentially competing with paying our teachers and police officers. Second, Metro has so far not actively engaged with us on developing the George Mason High School/Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School site. Finally, the Metro 3T bus service that many of our citizens rely on to get to Metro stations has been discontinued. All of these issues must be addressed, or we may be forced to determine whether there is a functional equivalent to Article 50, which a member state can trigger to remove itself from the European Union.

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Beyond Metro, the road picture is not much better. As a result of Richmond-based deals, we will soon see tolls and widening on I-66. Our best responses at this point are to continue pressing for effective alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles, rebuilding good sound walls, preventing the diversion of cars onto City streets, and recovering some of the tolls to make it easier for our citizens to access transit and avoid driving. Meanwhile, competition for transportation dollars will tighten, with political power represented by Loudon and Prince William Counties shifting spending ever west and ever in favor of roads, despite the shortsightedness and environmental issues that are endemic to highway expansion.

A Preference for Larger Jurisdictions

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) was created to coordinate transportation regionally and initially worked well. Ironically, this body’s performance began to falter when it was funded with new monies from a collection of taxes imposed on all citizens in the region. Having so “courageously” authorized these new levies, a few Richmond legislators, Delegate Lemunyon in the lead, are now directing how the Authority spends its money – for their hand-picked road projects. NVTA is increasingly bureaucratic as well, favoring only the largest road projects for the largest jurisdictions. Meanwhile, the smallest projects that reduce vehicle travel in favor of alternatives such as biking or walking are micromanaged and otherwise discouraged, despite very high cost/benefit rankings. In our case, it has been an unceasing struggle to even begin to receive back some of the money Falls Church taxpayers are putting into this regional tax pot. This situation increasingly resembles the Local Composite Index for school funding – a Richmond-rigged formula where our citizens pay, but other jurisdictions profit.

Coming Soon: BRT

There is one major transportation project that Falls Church can be enthusiastic about – Bus Rapid Transit to serve our residents and commercial areas along Routes 7 and 29 and Roosevelt and tying into Metro stations. Bus Rapid Transit would make every business from Eden Center to the State Theatre and on to the West End more accessible to people inside and outside our City. Of course, we will need to craft operational bus arrangements that won’t take a lane away from other uses of these roads during the times when they are most needed, but this can certainly be accomplished. This exciting project is moving through the planning stages and will soon be something the City can fully embrace.

In addition, we are pressing forward with funding for our bus shelters and Bike Share and improvements to crosswalks and sidewalks to make the Falls Church safer and more accessible, bike friendly, and walkable. And we are working to provide necessary parking and traffic calming throughout the City.

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Transportation is about moving people. It’s also about creating the kind of environment we want – as so clearly demonstrated by our citizens in the visioning session held earlier in June. The challenges are many, but so, too, are the potential rewards.

 


David Snyder is a member of the Falls Church City Council.

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