Across Northern Virginia, frustration has been mounting as an economy that pours money into the state’s tax base also congeals traffic on overburdened roads managed by the state. Last year, the General Assembly failed to create a stable source of funding to help the area’s transportation infrastructure keep pace with demand that is only expected to grow.
Del. Mark Sickles (D-43rd) represents some of Fairfax’s fastest-growing areas in the south of the county. Development in the 43rd is set to explode in a few years, when 22,000 new Army employees begin working at Fort Belvoir under the army’s plan to relocate and consolidate its workforce.
The General Assembly session that began this week and will run through February will be another opportunity for Sickles and his colleagues to allocate the $650-700 million each year that many area officials say will be required for a comprehensive transportation solution, including widening roads, extending Metrorail and building new bike paths. “The best thing that we could do for BRAC is to pass a comprehensive transportation bill,” Sickles said.
Asked about the odds of this actually happening, he replied, “I would have to put it around 30 - 35 percent. I think there’s a 100 percent chance we’re going to throw some money towards the problem.”
The biggest obstacle, Sickles said, is Republicans in the finance committee who are ideologically opposed to any increase in taxes.
SICKLES SAID he is introducing two bills that directly address his district’s issues with transportation and development. Both are backed by Governor Timothy Kaine. One is a land use bill that will give local governments, like the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the authority to deny or delay developers’ applications for rezoning if the surrounding transportation infrastructure is inadequate to support the proposed projects.
“We have to grow better than we have in the past. We have to grow in ways that allow people to move about without their cars,” Sickles said. “We just can’t keep growing into the countryside like we have been.”
But this bill would have no impact on Army’s plans for Fort Belvoir, because the federal project is not subject to state or local laws.
Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland said that the General Assembly must give county authorities the power to deny rezoning requests if there are not “adequate public facilities” in place to support them. Sickle’s bill would be a step in this direction, though Hyland listed education and public safety infrastructure, in addition to transportation, as factors that should also empower him and his colleagues. “That, I think is the second leg of how to solve the problem, to give us those tools to do our job.”
The first leg of that stool, Hyland stressed, is transportation funding. “Transportation, transportation, transportation.”
Sickles will also be introducing a bill that would designate a percentage of the state’s budget surpluses for a transportation fund. Now, Virginia law allows only two uses for the budget surpluses that have become common in recent years. The bulk of the money goes into a rainy day fund. A smaller percentage is dedicated to improving the state’s water quality. But the rainy day fund, designed as a revenue source to stabilize the state’s budget in lean economic years, is nearing its cap of about $1 billion.
Sickles’ bill would designate 50 percent of any money left over after the state meets its rainy day and water quality obligations to a fund for transportation. Last year, a similar bill with a higher percentage had modest success in General Assembly, and Sickles is optimistic that bipartisan support in the House of Delegates and the Senate may push the bill through.
“If this good economy continues then we’ll be able to put automatically, at the end of the year, money into transportation without the General Assembly fighting over it,” Sickles said. “It will give the public a little assurance that if we’re doing well at least half the money is going to go to transportation.” But he stressed that the money will not be nearly enough to meet the region’s needs. He said the biggest opposition to the bill will come from the Finance Committee, whose leadership tends to resist legislation that limits their flexibility on budget decisions.
POPULATION GAINS HAVE STRESSED more than the region’s roads. Like the rest of the country, Northern Virginia is also facing a shortage of nurses. Sickles said one of his priorities this session will be the approval of budget initiatives to enhance the state’s capacity to train more nurses.
One of Northern Virginia’s five nursing schools is located in Sickles’ district, at Northern Virginia Community College’s (NVCC) Springfield campus. He said this campus needs to double the number of nurses it produces, but it cannot attract enough nursing teachers away from better-paying jobs with hospitals, which are competing for the shrinking pool of nurses. “We don’t pay instructors enough to entice them to leave nursing to teach,” Sickles said.
There are about 1,500 nursing vacancies in the region, according to the president of NVCC, Dr. Robert Templin, who cited a recent study. He said the region needs to be graduating 1,000 nurses a year and it is only graduating 500. NVCC’s campus graduates 200.
There is a nationwide shortage of nurses. but Templin said Northern Virginia’s rapid growth, aging population and aging force of health workers, who tend to retire early, has exacerbated the problem. In addition, the affluent population of Northern Virginia tends to pursue every innovation, consuming more medical care. “If there’s a new full body scan that comes out, people in Northern Virginia have to have it.”
Templin said that as the shortage of nurses and other healthcare workers grows more acute, Northern Virginians will see “a significant deterioration of access” to medical care: including ambulances being rerouted to fully staffed emergency rooms farther way, longer waits for elective surgeries and longer lines in the waiting room. “Instead of taking a half-day off you may have to take whole day off, because the waiting rooms are overcrowded.” And as hospitals are forced to bid for workers, the costs will be passed to consumers.
Sickles and Templin support spending requests from the governor that would create scholarships for the training of more nursing teachers, and would raise salaries for nursing faculty at state schools by 10 percent.
SICKLES WILL ALSO be introducing a bill based on the May murders of two Fairfax County police officers at the Sully District Station. The killer was a mentally disturbed 18 year-old man who had acquired several firearms, including a high-powered rifle. On May 8, he stole a car, drove to a police station and opened fire in the parking lot. Sickles’ bill will allow victims and their relatives to bring civil lawsuits for damages against the people responsible for a mentally ill person if that person harms others after having been deemed prone to violence and in possession of weapons.