State senators and delegates are preparing to travel to Richmond for what promises to be another heated session at the General Assembly. Making statewide headlines before the session, transportation is set to be the most debated issue again in 2007.
Addressing an audience at the Reston Community Center at Hunter Woods on Thursday night, state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) dubbed the upcoming session "Transportation: Round Two." She said the legislators in Richmond had to come up with funding for transportation without starving healthcare and education needs. However, she said: "We have an almost insurmountable problem with the House [of Delegates] leadership."
Howell and Del. Ken Plum (D-36) then became the audience, as their constituents spoke of issues the representatives should debate in Richmond. Howell and Plum hold the pre-session public hearing annually.
Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said transportation is the number one issue affecting Reston and Northern Virginia, and it has to be resolved. Finding appropriate funding, according to Hudgins, included dedicated funding for metro.
Reston resident Andrew Guthrie said the state's Attorney General should investigate whether developers unduly influenced local planning commissioners, which in turn caused the gridlock. "It certainly wasn't well planned," said Guthrie.
HOWEVER, GUTHRIE'S main point was that the local public transportation systems needed to be improved. This included purchasing new buses for the bus service. "We need to wean people out of their cars and into public transportation more than we are," he said. Guthrie gave some suggestions for the incentives. They included buying hydrogen-fueled buses for environmental reasons, and offering free coffee and a copy of USA Today for the riders, joked Guthrie. "Let the state come in and whack the county transportation planners on the head. Better buses would at least help in the short run," he said.
Dolores Frye, a frequent bus rider, said some of the buses in use are in terrible condition. "I don't know about the free coffee, but at least we need buses that do work," she said.
On the other hand, Fairfax County school bus driver Terry Burgess said the issue is more than the question of transportation. The issue is life and death on I-495. Burgess said he sees large commercial vehicles driving at high speeds on congested roadways. "I see 40-ton trucks doing between 75 and 80 miles per hour. It's scary. Where is the enforcement, I have no idea," said Burgess. "It's not about the transportation issue, it's about dying on the roads," he added.
Related to the traffic congestion is the issue of road maintenance. Joe Stowers said Fairfax County is in a highway maintenance crisis. "Roads are getting worse and worse," said Stowers. He said he visited the Virginia Department of Transportation Web site, which has its six-year plan for road projects posted on it, and concluded that the situation will only get worse. As a Reston example, he said South Lakes Drive was in a horrible condition in some portions. "We are in worse shape on the maintenance side than the Capital Improvements," he said. "If we wait, the costs [of road improvements] will skyrocket." Bowers urged the legislators to raise awareness and understanding of the issue when in Richmond.
ALTHOUGH SOME SPEAKERS asked the legislators to raise transportation questions at the session, a range of other issues was presented at the hearing.
Patrick Swatt, a person with a developmental disability, spoke of a need to help people with developmental disabilities live in this area. "I cannot see how people like myself can continue to live in Northern Virginia," said Swatt of the rising cost of living. He also encouraged the expansion of metro services, because, he said, it is a good service for people with disabilities.
Marcia DiTrapani said there is a shortage of nurses in Northern Virginia. The problem will only get worse as a large percentage of nurses working now are set to retire in the years to come. "It's not that people don't want to go into nursing, it's that there's no programs to train them," she said. DiTrapani said George Mason University has the largest nursing program in the area, which recently had 600 applicants compete for 200 positions in the program. DiTrapani said there was a lack of instructors, and that putting money into the budget for more instructors could help train more nurses.
Besides transportation, Hudgins talked of a need to tackle social services issues, such as childcare subsidy. She added that the legislators in Richmond should look into substance abuse problems in the state. "The substance abuse issue is very important to us, because it ties to other issues," she said.
The Hunter Mill representative on the Fairfax County School Board, Stu Gibson, asked that the state pour more funding for teachers of English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students. "Our fastest growing population [in the state] are English language learners," said Gibson. Currently, he said, the state provides funding for 17 teachers per 1,000 students. He said the math equates to one teacher per 59 students. "One is always tempted, when one has money, to spend it," he said. "I'm urging you to spend [the surplus] wisely."
Reston resident Rick Smith said there are 32 students per class at Hunters Woods Elementary School. This has changed from when he first moved to Reston, when there were 21 students per class. "This place has got a lot of people, but we don't handle it like there is a lot of people," he said.
ANOTHER ISSUE that drew many speakers to the podium is the secrecy behind the Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act (PPEA) of 2002. The act conceals the details of proposed developments under a public-private partnership until a contract is awarded to the developer. Locally, the act drew criticism recently when a group of Reston residents rallied to reject a proposal to build affordable housing units on the site of the South Reston Park and Ride lot. Mike McDermott said that there was an investigation on the PPEA on the state level recently, but it is not active. "Please reopen the investigation into the secrecy of the PPEA," said McDermott.
Marie Huhtala asked the legislators to press the county government to a reasonable interpretation of the Act.
"The PPEA process needs to be reviewed at the state level," said Plum. He said he understood the developers' proprietary rights had to be protected, but that the residents needed to have some protection as well.
Other issues were raised at the hearing: a measure to protect consumers against insurance companies who assess people's insurance premiums based on credit scores, Columbia Gas plans to cut trees along its pipeline — a portion of which goes through Reston — and more funding for older adults with mental health problems.
"I love representing Reston," said Howell after the hearing. "When I come and listen to your concerns I appreciate what Reston is all about."
Plum said there was incredible participation at the hearing, and that he was amazed with the range of people's interests. "The big ones, transportation and education, were there, but then there were also particular [local] concerns that affect the quality of life," he said. Plum recently returned from a trip to Germany where he studied ways of using renewable energy. He said he hopes that legislation will be passed in this session that will have some requirement on utility companies to use renewable sources.