Transportation Shapes Town Meeting

Transportation Shapes Town Meeting

Lee District's annual town meeting a time for citizen information and input — especially on transportation.

Everything from the changing face of Fairfax County to the ever-escalating real estate assessments, and taxes they precede, were fair bait for the overflow crowd at the Franconia Governmental Center on March 25.

What drew the more than 300 residents to the center on Franconia Road was Supervisor Dana Kauffman's (D-Lee) Annual Town Meeting coupled with the grand opening of a permanent home for the Franconia Museum. The event also featured exhibits and information from some 20-plus county service agencies and private organizations.

In kicking off the three-hour program, Kauffman announced, "This is a tie-less, PowerPoint-less session. This panel before you are the folks I and my staff rely on to be able to perform our duties in serving you."

Entitled "Trends, Turns and Bumps in the Road Ahead," the presentation included 10 speakers, representing most facets of Fairfax County government, who not only covered such topics as transportation, parks and recreation, community human services and public safety, but also fielded questions during an hour-plus question and answer session.

Leading off the meeting was Fairfax County demographer, Anne Cahill. Using 1970 as her point of reference, Cahill noted that at that time Fairfax County was pretty much a bedroom community with most residents working in the District of Columbia. Its minority population was also only 6.8 percent of the total.

"Today, we are one of the largest job engines in the region. And, we are considered an immigrant gateway. Forty percent of our population is comprised of minorities. One in four of our residents was born in another country," Cahill said.

That job growth is one of the primary factors causing housing prices to escalate, according to Cahill. "From 1990 to 1998 housing prices were practically flat. In the past five years they have skyrocketed," she said.

The average size of a single-family home has also ballooned since 1970. Then the average size was 1,700 square feet. Today that average size is 3,700 square feet, according to Cahill.

AS IT IS AND HAS BEEN in Richmond and throughout the urban centers of Virginia for the last decade, the prime topic, along with real estate taxes, at the Town Meeting was transportation. It was covered from every angle and mode.

"We tried to sort out what was most important on this subject," said Harry Zimmerman, Lee District transportation commissioner.

"Teleworking is magic when it comes to reducing traffic," he said. "It takes people off the roads and it saves fuel." Zimmerman listed the three primary transportation challenges in the years ahead as increased traffic attributed to the Base Realignment and Closure Report bringing an additional 21,500 personnel to Fort Belvoir, Route 1 safety needs, and Metro access to ever-shifting employment centers.

"One of the major issues is BRAC. But, we have done a zip code analysis of where people live who are coming to Belvoir and guess what — the enemy is us," said Kauffman. The two most represented zip codes of those being transferred to Fort Belvoir are 22310 and 22315, according to Kauffman.

Speaking to the transit side of the equation was Jim Hughes, operations manager, Washington Area Mass Transit Authority. "There was no Metro in 1970," said Hughes. "Now we have more than 1 million riders daily."

He pointed out that Fairfax County has 5 1/2 Metro stations within its borders. One station is partly located in Fairfax County and partly in the City of Alexandria. "We are gaining 50,000 new riders per day. We've transitioned from building a system to operating and managing one," Hughes said.

"Over the next 10 years, Metro is predicted to grow by one third. And that does not include the Dulles corridor," he said.

To accommodate this increased ridership, Metro is planning to increase the length of its trains to eight cars by 2008, Hughes revealed. "But, that's as big as we can get. We can't increase the length of the trains beyond that," he said.

"There are going to be problems. What we need to get better at is responding to those problems to satisfy our riders," Hughes said.

TRANSIT PROBLEMS are not limited to Metro rail, Hughes told the audience packed into the Center's community room and seated out in the hallway watching on closed circuit television. "Our buses are also being strained by increased ridership and constantly changing routes," he said.

"Our buses are old. We are buying 400 new buses this year. That's a one third change in the fleet. By having newer buses reliability will improve," Hughes stated.

He also gave his support to teleworking and flextime. "Ridership on Mondays and Fridays is a lot less for us because of flextime. But the area job market is constantly shifting," he said.

Increased ridership is not only attributed to a growth job market; Hughes identified the resurgence in area tourism as a major contributor. This is now higher than before Sept. 11, 2001, according to Hughes.

"Where do we go next?" he asked. "We need to get together as a region. This is not a one area problem. It stretches across boundaries."

Capping off the transportation topic was Kathy Ichter, director, Fairfax County Department of Transportation. "The last time there was a major infusion of money into highway construction by the state was 1986," Ichter said.

"The number of miles driven on our roads has increased 79 percent and the number of vehicles driving those miles is up 50 percent. Yet we have only increased highway spending by 7 percent," she said.

"We might be losing federal dollars by not having enough state matching dollars. We have a full-time lobbyist in Richmond trying to get more money for Fairfax County," Ichter said.

The two biggest problems facing her department are parking and traffic management within neighborhoods. "We are constantly working on better traffic management as well as encouraging transit-oriented development," she said.

ON THE TOPIC of parks and recreation Rodney Lusk, Lee District planning commissioner, pointed out that 16 percent of the district is devoted to open space in the form of parks and recreation facilities.

Two trends are driving the need for more parks and recreation facilities, according to Lusk. One is rapid growth and the other is escalating property values.

"By 2020, Fairfax County's population will swell to 1,993,000 residents. That is larger than seven of our 50 states," Lusk said.

"Those residents will require both active and passive recreation areas. For every 10 acres of county land, one would need to be designated a recreation area," he said.

Switching to another subject, Lusk emphasized that the county must come to grips with both "work force" housing and affordable housing. "Many employees can't afford to live in the county. We need units built today," Lusk said.

"We need to think about who can qualify for these affordable units. One of the points to be considered is giving preferences for those units to those that work in Lee District," he said.

ADDRESSING THE TOPICS of community services and public safety were Grace Starbird, Fairfax County Agency on Aging; Ken Disselkoen, regional manager, Systems Management for County Human Services; Mike Congleton, deputy zoning administrator, Fairfax County; and Lt. Col. Suzanne Devlin, deputy chief, Fairfax County Police Department.

"The way to have a healthy thriving community is through civic involvement. The more people you know in your neighborhood the safer that neighborhood. It's the borrowing a cup of sugar formula," Disselkoen said in referring to the old adage of knowing a neighbor well enough to ask for a cup of sugar.

Addressing the issue of overcrowding in certain neighborhoods, Congleton said: "The number of complaints we receive on an annual basis represents only one half of 1 percent of the county's population." He also announced that the county will be combining services dealing with health and residential zoning into one agency.

When it came to Devlin, she emphasized that, "Although overall crime is down in the county, we face some interesting challenges because of the county's changing demographics and the immigrant community is not fully comfortable with the police."

She noted that new crimes have been appearing that "can be tied to the county's increasing diversity." Among those she cited child slavery, child pornography and gambling.

One of law enforcement's greatest challenges is dealing with an increase in domestic violence, according to Devlin. "Many of these cases are not reported because immigrants don't want their papers checked," she said.

"But, the most challenging future bump in the road is managing the threat of terrorism. We will never be able to protect everyone alone. The secret is neighborhood involvement," Devlin said.

Kauffman pointed out to the audience that Fairfax County has the lowest crime rate with the smallest police force of the 50 largest municipal jurisdictions in the nation.

CHAIRMAN of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Gerald Connolly (D-At-large) wrapped up the panel portion of the meeting. In answer to a question about escalating residential assessments, Connolly said, "In the last five years we only caught up with the flat housing prices that existed for nearly a decade."

He attributed the booming housing market to the increase of 25,000 new jobs in the county last year alone. "Fifty-five percent of our residents now work in Fairfax County," he said.

"The state only allows the county one source of tax revenue. That is real estate," he said.

He pointed out that real estate tax rates have been cut by 23 cents in the last five years. "We are going to cut that rate at least another 10 cents to 90 cents this year," he said. Connolly also explained county tax dollars go for three primary expenditures — schools, public safety and new facilities. Of these categories, schools take the most.

"Only 25 percent of our population has kids in schools," Connolly said. "I have asked [the School Boards] to put themselves on a budget diet. That diet will also apply to county government. But, the schools need to limit themselves to an increase of no more than 6 percent."

He also noted that as an extra financial saving for residents, the Board of Supervisors is eliminating the car decal fee. "There will be no more decal fee in Fairfax County," he said.

Following the panel presentations, Kauffman opened the floor to citizen questions which ranged from property taxes, to road priorities, to public safety concerns. Most of those attending remained for the entire program.